In a democracy, public education should promote models and policies for schools that provide students direct, personal experience with democratic ideals of choice, equality, freedom, and shared power.
As much as we want to “teach content” and “cover curriculum,” we can’t drop out of the sky into students’ pre-exisitng communities and the midst of their pre-conceived notions of school and deliver democracy to them. We need to design and implement a public education system steeped in democractic practices and student, parent, teacher, and community participation. We need to provide constructive, democratic, and engaging constraints that, slowly, over time, transform young children’s group play into adolescents’ shared work on behalf of their communities. Also slowly, over time, we need to stop delivery of everything to them, and instead to disappear with students into a crowd of learners working together for the common good until there is only us.
To ensure our lives, liberty, and continued pursuit of happiness in an increasingly complex world, we need our nation’s democratic ideals to hold more sway over public education than its capitalist notions of winning and losing.
Right now most public schools and their classrooms do not reflect the rights and privileges we expect students to use responsibly as citizens [NB: there’s a student-voiced instance of cursing at 1:09 and in the sidebar]. It will remain impossible to achieve the vibrant, egaltarian, pluralistic society and stable world we want so long as our schools perpetuate the hidden curriculum of ranking and sorting students – of further dividing the haves and have-nots. So long as our schools unduly limit students’ choice and learning, we deprive ourselves of voices and ideas that can address the dangers, opportunities, and obsolescences of our schools, communities, country, and world.
How can public education reshape schools as truly democratic institutions?
First, public education should overhaul assessment requirements so students create and share portfolios and performances to demonstrate mastery of their learning. These portfolios and performances should be used as vehicles for universal authorship. Students should move through their educations developing and exercising their voices in front of communities that can celebrate their work and offer meaningful feedback about improving it or using it to address community issues. This kind of public appreciation of kids’ work can help them feel like they’re becoming equal partners in their communities’ conversations and acclimate them to participating in a democracy with all of their peers.
Second, public education should stop ranking and sorting students. Standardized tests, grades, grade levels, leveled classes, and tracking all need to go. These structures broadcast to students the false idea that they deserve fundamentally unequal educations according to the ways they are judged and sentenced by adults. Students should have the freedom to move through public education at their own pace – and to pursue their passions – according to readiness and interest without undue regard for age or faulty measurements of learning. Students should have the right to authentic assessment and constructive feedback. Students should be protected from decontextualized assessment and punishing feedback. Public education needs to revise scheduling, staffing policies, and curriculum requirements so schools can resource more flexibly to value students and their learning. We need to create school communities that work hard to bring students together if we’re ever going to have a society that does the same for all its citizens.
Third, schools should ask for student, parent, teacher, and community input into school governance. Neither public education nor its schools model power-sharing. Either/or rules the national discourse about public education. At the national level, pundits debate public schools vs. (public) charter schools, passing vs. failing, unions vs. children. One way to increase the democracy quotient of public education is to increase opportunities for power-sharing at local schools. Not only can schools offer students more choice and freedom in learning and promotion, but they can also invite more direct student, parent, teacher, and community involvement in policies and operations. By inviting feedback and acting on it, schools can show students and other stakeholders direct (stakeholders’ suggestions) and representational (leaders’ decisions) democracy at work.
I can see a school that serves as a relevant support and base for student learning pursued and evaluated at sites throughout a community and across social networks; I can see a school of equals where ideas can escape and be valued beyond the confines of particular classes, disciplines, grades, levels, and tracks, where the prerequisite for participation in the most relevant and rigorous work isn’t a grade but a wilingness to speak, be heard, and ask for help from peers and adults alike; I can see a school that frees itself from obsolete restraints by building consensus between staff, students, and stakeholders for new solutions to old problems.
If we can provide students opportunities to participate in the lives of their communities, meaningful choice between viable educational options, and the chance to see schools as responsive to stakeholders’ needs and wants, then we can provide a public education that graduates a democratic citizenry used to voicing, evaluating, valuing, and implementing the ideas we need to lead the world in ages of information and innovation.