Teaching Profession Opinion

If Schools Were Democracies, What Would Change?

By Deborah Meier — October 07, 2014 4 min read
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Deborah Meier’s conversation with Leo Casey of the Albert Shanker Institute continues today. Catch up on the conversation here.


Politics has a bad reputation—as a word. Too bad, since democracy requires politics. Acting “by, for, and of” doesn’t play out easily and requires constant rethinking about trade-offs—which can turn into “bad politics” or “good politics,” depending on ...

Those intent upon potentially unpopular reforms have good reason to be in a hurry to make changes that will be hard to undo while they (however temporarily) have the power to do so. That’s one form of “bad” politics. We’ve seen this worldwide from so-called Leftists and Rightists. It’s very tempting, and maybe you and I have sometimes urged our allies to do the same!

I like the Danielle Allen quote that “talking to strangers” is at the heart of democracy. But the kind of talk that democracy rests on is not exactly the same as talking to old friends and family. There are no “you know what I mean’s” to fall back on. The Five Habits of Mind we “invented” at Central Park and Mission Hill were our attempt to clarify the kind of argument democracy rests on. You and I are on the same page about the need for practice—in schools, unions, et al—required to get good at it.

It’s the who decides what and how at the end of a good argument that I think there is probably some disagreement among those of us who otherwise agree on so much. Sometimes the good argument is the whole point: to get greater clarity. But often one must act upon the topic under discussion. As a citizen, one acts on whatever one thinks when the time comes to be “counted,” but as a representative of “the people” it is sometimes more complicated since one represents many different people with different views. One may even agree with them all “in principle,” but not when it comes to this particular decision in this particular context. Who the rep votes for, who does he/she represent? That’s another place where negotiations lead to compromises.

After that, majority rule is a common way to make decisions—just count the pros and cons. (That’s decreasingly so in our congressional system.) In my cursory rereading of dictionary definitions of democracy, majority rule and representation are often mentioned, but actually are not at the heart of most definitions. They are a “means” for carrying out an “idea.” It’s the “idea” that’s complicated.

Example: The staff at Mission Hill felt strongly that they should choose their leader and evaluate him or her. But after much thought it seemed clear that if we wanted to have maximum freedom on pedagogy and curriculum we had to provide sufficient authority to parents and community (and in some cases students) in return.

We decided that we could live with an arrangement in which it required the vote of three out of the five representatives of three (later four) different constituencies to choose a new principal. That gave “us” veto power, but it also gave it to all those with a critical stake in the school. For the past 17 years, it has worked for making this decision and others deemed vital to our identity.

Ditto our decision to use a form of consensus among the staff (familiarly called the Fist of Five). I started off thinking it a bit flakey. It’s not as quick as “for” and “against,” but it increased the odds that our arguments were intended to persuade others, and to go deeply and respectfully into what opponents were worrying about. It worked much better than I expected! Of course, it also works best when we’re all sitting around one big table directly “confronting” each other, with time (ah, time!) to hear each other. It sometimes leads to amazingly useful compromises that no longer seem like compromises.

I apologize, Leo, for the implication that the NYC Unity caucus was using a Leninist device. In fact, the British Parliament works in much the same fashion. It produces much stronger parties (or caucuses), if one can speak as one voice. (In the British system no MP has an office or his/her own staff, for this same reason). The Party makes occasional exceptions, on decisions of lesser importance.

I would argue, Leo, that this is not against “democracy,” but it inhibits some aspects of democratic culture that I cherish. It reduces the minority’s opportunity to be heard and increases the odds that the party in power remains invulnerable. It also reduces my opportunity to stand up for what I believe in public, unless I intend to resign from my party. I think that tension is unhealthy for a flourishing democratic environment. It places The Leader in a more powerful role in articulating the party’s majority stance versus a more free-wheeling discussion between equals.

It places more importance on the life of the party, and as you note, means the important conversation, the time-consuming back and forth, takes place within the party, not within the membership, or the convention—between parties. Another trade-off.

I’m constantly amazed at how utopian people think the idea of the school being some form of real democracy is. I think that underlying this troubling suspicion about democracy’s efficacy is due to miseducation, plus a lack of experience with any democratic institutions. If schools were to operate as democracies, what are some examples of how that might work, Leo? Where would you put your emphasis—school or system? What about families, community, students’ role in decisionmaking? What kind of negotiated union-management system would be needed, and what aspects of current collective bargaining might need to be changed? Can we shift a little to this topic?

It’s the step the Boston union never pursued in its Pilot School initiative and one I think we need to explore ... yesterday.


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