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Philosophical Meanderings

Schools Must Become Democratic Institutions

Democracy we deliver by jexplique

Democracy we deliver by jexplique

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.

Consider what you and your students can do. We can wait for game changers or we can change the game for us all.


About Chad Sansing

I teach for the users. Opinions are mine; content is ours.


8 thoughts on “Schools Must Become Democratic Institutions

  1. Chad, you tersely describe necessary changes for schools to model the behavior and culture that we expect students to magically begin once they are 18 and/or graduate. There must be partnership in education, between teachers and students, teachers and parents, students and parents, and the community at-large. There must be mechanisms in place that provide the space and process for this to happen.

    One of my dream set-ups of a school is where teachers, students, and parents, all sit down at the beginning of the school year. Everyone discusses their goals for the year for the student. Transparency is there from the beginning. A plan is crafted looking at what is happening at school that year, in the community, and in the student’s life. A plan is formalized that everyone agrees on. Thus, the student is a vital architect in her own learning, alongside her parents and teachers.

    This plan can be amended as time goes on and either goals are met or new interests arise. Furthermore, students don’t need to be at a desk all day, they are involved in community happenings, directing their own learning, and participating in classes that are relevant to their goals.

    What do you think of that idea?

    Posted by Adam Burk | March 1, 2010, 9:00 pm
    • I love it, Adam. It’s vital that students take a stake in their learning and that we allow them to do so with a plan or contract that speaks to their needs, not just to the needs of an assignment or teacher. Learning contracts should be about learning, not completion of work or compliance with directions. I’m getting better at offering meaningful choice per assignment, but I’m complicit with standardized testing in that I negotiate process and product around set curriculum; I don’t negotiate curriculum.

      This level of differentiation is really hard to pull off for anyone working in isolation, teaching 100+ kids a day. It would be tempting for traditional schools to skew this approach for those “who are ready” or “those most in need.” How do you think schools should staff and assign administrators, counselors, and teachers in a learning contract system that works for all students? What’s your ideal enrollment? Would you implement this at a school of 500+ with separate teams or houses, or does this approach rely on smaller schools? How would you power-share curriculum control between the school and its students?

      Many thanks!

      Posted by Chad Sansing | March 3, 2010, 9:03 am
  2. Chad, thanks for the questions!

    This could only be implemented in small settings. Whether that is literally a small school or schools within schools or teams, there has to be the ability to cultivate personal relationships.

    It would also have to be the school-wide or program philosophy, it wouldn’t work the way I am describing to implement as a single teacher. As single teachers, we can as you are, experiment with meaningful self-direction in our learning within our classrooms. But that can only go so far as long as we are teaching to tests.

    I will leave my rant about standardized tests for another time.

    With hope,

    Posted by Adam Burk | March 3, 2010, 1:44 pm
  3. Chad,

    I think the idea of “ranking and sorting students” is one that we need to revisit more frequently and critically assess what the purpose of the ranking and sorting is/was. The reality is that we still need a way for students to experience a somewhat “Goldilocks” syndrome in schools. Classes shouldn’t be too easy, but they also shouldn’t be too hard. Students need to achieve their personal best. I think that if we start looking at school as a continuum where kids are “grouped” with other students regardless of age, then we take strides in that direction.

    This is where the democratic component comes in. Students must become capable of working with people of varying ages, abilities, and backgrounds. Our current structure downright sucks at doing this. This is part of the reason why schools do such a terrible job of teaching democracy. Since students deal with the same group (for the most part) of students for 13 years, there is little incentive for them to learn to adapt to differences that exist.

    Being able to function in a democracy must come with some cultural intelligence and ability to see a wide variety of perspectives and evaluate their legitimacy and authenticity. Schools fails at this big time.


    Posted by Aaron Eyler | March 3, 2010, 2:01 pm
    • I agree, Aaron, that choice and relevant instruction need to be features offered by public schools. However, I would push us towards letting students make their own choices about the subjects in which they work and the levels at which they work with feedback from adult facilitators about how to address the difficulties students experience. So long as students are allowed to group themselves according to their needs and the needs of their work – and so long as students aren’t limited in their choices by others’ judgments – I’m on board with grouping. Schools would be vastly different and vastly more relevant if students were taught to self-assess and self-advocate for help with their needs instead of being told where to go, when to go there, and what they’re problems are when they get there.

      Posted by Chad Sansing | March 7, 2010, 2:56 pm
  4. Here’s another school that approaches what I am talking about in student-centered learning within embedded learning communities,


    Posted by Adam Burk | March 3, 2010, 5:39 pm
  5. Thanks for the great post guys! This was a great article to run across and really says a lot about what we are doing at student choice high school in Tempe, Arizona.

    Posted by Josh Gray | April 26, 2010, 8:23 pm

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