Teaching Opinion

Confronting School Reforms That Work Against Democracy

By Deborah Meier — November 18, 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,

Yes, without public schools, the struggle for democracy will be harder. And there is no question but that the history of democracy’s progress is closely connected to the history of public education.

These two propositions, however, rest upon how we define both public and democracy!

And, alas, our public schools have not (ever) done a good job of helping the next generation get a handle on what it is, how it works, and what the dilemmas are. Not for the rich or the poor. The former got an education designed to a considerable degree for a “ruling class” that had disdain for democracy (while being very competent at its rhetoric). And the “others” got an education that made them feel unfit to be rulers, and often enough angry at the contempt shown them by the “well-educated,” but prepared to accept it.

When I started subbing on Chicago’s South Side I was deeply shaken at the many ways in which the schools undermined the most basic premises of democracy. Although no doubt it wasn’t as bad as it was before teachers unionized, I had never ever in my life been treated as shabbily ... as disrespectfully ... as I was as both a parent and a teacher in our public schools.

I was lucky though to be able to send my three kids to a neighborhood school—Shoesmith—which served primarily African-American (80 percent) and white children (20 percent). The children of color included some of the wealthiest Chicagoans and many of the poorest because of the school’s location on the border between Kenwood (where Barack Obama lived) and the desperately poor neighborhood directly north of it.

Since it was near the University of Chicago there was also a sprinkling of mostly middle-class whites who for some reason were not going to Catholic school or to one of the local progressive private schools.

My experience subbing and then later teaching morning kindergarten at Shoesmith brought home some startling truths. We were not using most of our schools to teach democracy, and on the whole, they probably did more to discourage democratic ideals than nourish them.

I also, as a teacher at Shoesmith, had a chance to recapture my idealism! It was a small school with an unusual faculty of highly educated and feisty women, with a principal who aspired to be a high school principal and thus had no intention of learning to be an elementary principal. He saw his job as empowering those experienced women to tell him what needed to be done to support their teaching and passing on an encouraging word whenever he could. Meanwhile, inside that classroom, every stereotype that I knew about “those children” was rapidly dispelled. The youngsters—all 30—and their families were articulate, fun, and interesting to be with and completely susceptible to the kind of classroom I wanted to teach in (a classroom like the one I experienced as a privileged child). Yes, it helped that the inter-racial issue was confused by the fact that the children of color included the offspring of powerful upper-middle-class black families.

In short, I witnessed what “could be.” A faculty whose ideas and knowledge was taken advantage of by a wise principal, and one that, because of the size, could get to know each other and each other’s classrooms well.

It was an interesting place to be—for everyone. And I’ve decided that this is at the heart of what a good school is—perhaps the best definition I know of. It has stood the test of time.

The school restored my wavering hopes for democracy. It was resting on a solid foundation, not on a utopian vision of the human species. Still ...

I’ve also come to believe that democracy is not “natural.” We are probably better designed to view the “knight in white armor” as our savior than our peers. Democracy had to be taught, if you will. But taught the way everything we know well is taught—by observing it in practice, and gradually moving from the outside to the inside as we developed our own expertise.

Schools needed to be places where a community, insiders and outsiders, created a setting in which we all learned, separately and together. I discovered also that this idea wasn’t some invention of my own, but had a noble history.

The union seemed the perfect tool for launching such ideas and practices, although it, too, was handicapped by a universal truth. We have to make the future out of the present—including all the people and their ideas that stand in our way!

The past 50-plus years brought me great satisfaction, and, of late, considerable despair. In the 1970s and ‘80s I saw, in New York City and elsewhere, a growing movement based on shared ideas about the value of viewing schools as communities, embedded in communities. It would help if they were small enough to avoid too much “representative” democracy so that everyone was learning what it meant to be a ruler first-hand. It helped if the school had to tackle all the problems confronting any democracy. Like, how do ordinary people find the time to do the thinking and discussing that came so much more easily to the former “leisure classes”? If I were to be a good teacher and good parent, did I have time to get involved in the governance of the school—involved enough to feel a real sense of responsibility for it?

Does everyone have an equal vote? Kids? Families? Members of the community? Teachers? Support staff? Kitchen staff? Custodians?

If not, why not? What democratic principles might we fall back on to differentiate who had power over what?

Al Shanker once proposed that teachers should elect their principals. He dropped it. But why not? What about parents? And so on.

When does one need an emergency plan for when there’s no time to talk it over? Does a climate of fear help create excuses for more and more emergencies that can’t be turned over to “the people”?

The past 50 years have been a marvelous educational experience in political science and moral philosophy, plus in figuring out what evidence I needed to persuade myself, and then others because ... I might be wrong!

But we’ve moved instead in the exact opposite direction with a speed and power that any revolutionary would admire. We are facing reforms that work against reinventing democracy at the street level, and disenfranchising the majority (literally) as we increasingly rely on a small self-involved class of wealth which, between the sheer power of their money, a good classy education, and confidence in their ability to “make a difference” in their world, is leading us further and further from “to, for, and by the people.”

What have I said that you agree/disagree with?


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.