Teaching Opinion

How to Promote Democracy in Schools

By Harry C. Boyte — September 24, 2015 4 min read
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Dear friends and Harry,

I’m a product of private progressive education. I learned a lot there, including about democracy. But...

We had an annual “founder’s day” ceremony where each year someone told about our glorious history as a school to help working men’s children grow up to build a cooperative society. But there wasn’t one workingman’s child in the assembly, even among those with scholarships.

Still, the idea stuck with me. The aspiration had been good, even if over time it became a school for well-intentioned wealthy, largely secular, second generation Jewish children.

I wanted schools like mine for all children, paid for by public monies, designed to create a generation of democratic, sophisticated, and powerful citizens. Then I had my own three children and determined that they would go to neighborhood public schools. Imagine my surprise upon coming to NYC in 1966 to discover that on the West Side of Manhattan, a district of well-intentioned liberals, public schools had been largely abandoned by the local white kids. My children’s schools put white kids into segregated classes under one disguise or another. What were we teaching the young about society?

I began to explore the ways in which we educate different kids differently sometimes even within the same classroom. I joined with others to put into practice the education I had received, for all children, ideally together.

I was told--by both black and white colleagues--that what I was describing wouldn’t work with all children. For poor and black children it was even disrespectful to teach progressive educational ideas. That was okay for privileged children.

Why? Because the other children didn’t come to school with all the know-how that such schooling required, they were used to “no excuses” discipline, etc.

This was the common-sense wisdom of educators and many parents, of different backgrounds. And while I agreed that one shouldn’t mandate a change of mind, I also believed the view of children is just plain wrong, and seriously damages their intellectual and social potential.

I have serious evidence that it’s wrong, including my own experience. I’d like all publicly funded schools to be like mine, and yet....

Still, I think some of its strengths can be mandated. For example, why shouldn’t we mandate that public schools in a democracy further democratic habits of mind and heart -- that we’re accountable for demonstrating that our work furthers democracy? We can’t ask schools by themselves to undo the impact of poverty and racism. But we should not be allowed to add to that impact. With that as our premise, what might we seek to mandate in return for taxpayer dollars? That’s my question, Harry.

Dear Deb and colleagues,

Deb, I agree with your elements of a democratic education and also your view that democratic education should be the norm. We need democracy schools everywhere!

Where we have some differences is how to get to there. My basic argument is that while government, politicians, and policies all play a role, we need to see citizens (including citizen teachers) - not government - as the center of strategies for change.

But let’s start with agreement about your idea of all sorts of kids learning democratic practices in democratic ways “in the same classroom.” This has been the genius of American education at its best - embodied in the common school ideal; schools as community centers; the tradition of City College when it admitted all students graduating from high schools and admission was free.

It’s what we’ve lost in the world of standardized testing and focus on individual stardom.

I’d call this a concept of “democratic excellence,” different than “meritocratic excellence.” Democratic excellence is a mix of children of diverse backgrounds and talents interacting in settings of high expectations, relational teaching, and public purpose. It begins with the unique talents of each child -- making schools “student ready.” It can achieve greatness which no focus on winnowing out the stars achieves. There is much more to discuss about this. Augsburg College is taking up the idea.

Getting to democracy schools: Government policies, political leaders, and civil servants all play roles in democratic social change, including educational change. But government needs to be rooted among the people.

There has been a radical erosion of such rootedness. As one official told us in the “New Citizenship,” a coalition I coordinated from 1993-1995 with the Clinton White House analyzing the gap between government and citizens, “we’ve lost the ‘civil’ in civil service - we don’t think of ourselves as citizens anymore.” We heard that across all federal agencies.

In this context government mandates generally don’t work well for large-scale democratic change because people experience policy as done “to” them - not something they help to do.

Large scale democratic education will require a citizen movement for deepening democracy in schools. Educators will be central, and it will involve reviving the idea of the “citizen teacher,” who learns “organizing” skills, different than “mobilizing” skills. Teacher organizations and teacher education programs are key potential sites.

There are stirrings of such a movement.


I hope there’s some role for mandates, and while I’d like to eliminate many of the existing ones I think there’s a place for deciding “you can’t do a and b period and furthermore you can’t do x and y with public monies.” We both want to get rid of much current top-down stuff, but we may have to add alternatives in some cases. So let’s see if we agree on what has to go and what may have to replace some of it--or on the level of governance that should be involved.

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.