Social Studies Opinion

Saving Democracy: What Schools Can Do

By Contributing Blogger — January 30, 2017 6 min read
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This post is by Ron Berger, Chief Academic Officer at EL Education.

Democracy is more fragile than we may understand. We can do more than we think to preserve it.

For more than 25 years I studied democracy with my public school students, and they questioned it. If democracy is so good, they wondered, why was the earth ruled for almost all of civilized history by monarchies and dictatorships? Why have so many countries in recent history lost their democratic governments and become autocratic? If democracy is so good, why isn’t our classroom democratic?

Here are some things they concluded:

1. Democracy was not the dominant governmental structure in history because

➢ Historically, not all people were respected

➢ The capacity of most people to make wise decisions was not trusted

➢ Literacy, formal education and reliable communication was not present for most of history, or was limited

2. Democracies crumble because

➢ People lose faith in the system: they believe they are not genuinely being heard, respected and protected and they seek an autocratic leader to fix things

➢ And/or, there is an external or internal military takeover

3. Families and schools are not democratic because adults do not trust kids to make good decisions

My students learned something else about democracies: a better question than “Is this country a democracy?” is “How democratic is this country?” Democratic conditions in a country exist on a continuum.

Countries are not stable in this regard: they drift. Democracies can become unstable because they drift away from democratic ideals. The United States is in constant drift. Sometimes we drift positively (e.g., at our founding, only white male property-owners could vote; gradually suffrage extended to many other citizens). Sometimes we drift negatively (e.g., in 1876, despite transportation and communication challenges, 83 percent of voters participated in presidential elections; today that level is below 60 percent).

What does all of this mean for schools? Educator Deborah Meier reminds us that to preserve American democracy, kids need to practice it daily in school. They need to study civics and history and understand our governmental system. Just as importantly, they need to be engaged in civic and civil debate, decision-making and contribution within a democratic community. If they don’t build that understanding, commitment, and habit now, they are likely to join the 95 million voters who did not cast a ballot in the last presidential election, or among those who voted without clear understanding of issues and structures. Even worse, they could be among those who do not fully respect the rights of other Americans.

My students discovered that our classroom was not actually undemocratic. Though many decisions were non-negotiable adult decisions, students made important decisions together all the time. Unlike the junior high school student council of my youth, where the most consequential decision trusted to students was whether to allow chocolate milk in the cafeteria, my students made significant decisions every day about the nature of our work and the structures of our learning community. They built norms for respect and communication; they facilitated meetings; they managed projects.

They learned that the more they demonstrated that they could be trusted to make wise decisions and treat others fairly, the more they would be in charge of their learning. By spring semester most years, our class was involved in a significant scientific research project for our local community that represented much of their academic day. For example, they did demographic studies of housing patterns on town roads; they tested homes in town for radon gas; they tested the quality of drinking water in people’s homes. Those projects were primarily managed by the students themselves.

A commitment to democracy was instilled by this work in two ways: students built an understanding of their responsibility as citizens to contribute to the public good--to use their learning to make their community safer and better--and students also understood that they were being trusted to make consequential decisions, with the privileges and responsibilities this trust entailed.

These democratic practices in our classroom, which I have shared with national audiences through writing and speaking, were often discounted by skeptics as not relevant broadly. Though our school was a regular public district school and many of the students were from low-income families, we were a small school in a tiny rural town--a single-school district.

This was far from the world of large urban public school districts, said the skeptics, where citizens feel more removed from democracy, and basic skills in math and literacy are almost the sole focus of education. These skeptics felt that trusting urban students to manage projects--with democratic decision-making, civic learning and civic contribution--could not be considered in places where needs were so high and test scores are the only currency.

In turns out the skeptics were wrong.

Over the past 20 years, in my work with EL Education and the Deeper Learning networks, I have seen students of all ages engaged in powerful democratic work to contribute to their communities--through research, projects and civic action--working together with democratic decision-making to lead that work. To do this, they learned about the structures of local and national government, and they learned how to advocate for, and create, positive change. They focused on equity and compassion--treating all others with respect. And graduation rates, college acceptances and test scores in these schools have been consistently far above district averages.

EL Education has been documenting examples of this kind of work--from schools within and beyond our school network--for 20 years, held in an open-source website, Models of Excellence. There are hundreds of projects done by students, most of whom come from public schools in low-income communities.

Middle School students at Polaris Charter Academy, an urban public school in Chicago, worked with legislators, clergy, community leaders and police to address gun violence in their community. You can see the story of their project here:

High school students at Springfield Renaissance School, an urban public district school in Springfield, Massachusetts, where every graduate has been accepted into college since the school opened, led energy audits of city buildings that saved the city hundreds of thousands of dollars, while helping the environment. They also led a scientific study of water quality in an urban pond that allowed it be reopened for recreation. You can see that project here:

Sixth grade students from Genesee Community Charter School, an urban public school in Rochester, New York, spent two years researching and advocating for an urban revitalization plan centered on re-watering derelict downtown sections of the Erie Canal. Student work and advocacy succeeded in convincing the city to commit millions of dollars to the project. You can see that story here:

We must not make a choice between focusing on academic skills, or instead, focusing on building the understanding and skills for civic contribution and respect for all of us who live in America. Projects like these build academic skills at the same time as civic understanding and commitment and forge an ethic of active, respectful citizenship. If our schools are not focusing deeply on this broader vision--the original purpose of public education--our democracy is in danger.

Videos: EL Education

Photos: David Grant

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