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Leadership and Activism, Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings

March to Democracy

learn by aaron schmidt

learn by aaron schmidt

The primary feature of democratic education is equal student and teacher participation in learning and school governance.  Independent democratic schools – like Sudbury schools – typify the theory of democratic education in practice.  At these schools

  • Students and teachers participate as equals in a direct democracy responsible for all school governance decisions – including hiring and “judicial” rulings.
  • Students take responsibility for their educations and curricula.
  • Students take responsibility for their environment.
  • Students can work in mixed-age groups.
  • Students use experience and play, as well as self-directed study, for learning.
  • Teachers facilitate student-directed learning, going so far as to recruit mentors for students interested in learning beyond the school’s means.
  • Teachers share administrative work.

Democratic schools are also remarkable because of what they lack and eschew.  At democratic schools there are no

  • Grades or grade levels.
  • Labels, levels, or tracks.
  • Principals.
  • Prescribed curricula.
  • Tests apart from those required by the school democracy or taken as part of the college admissions process.
  • Vetoes of majority rule.

These schools operate in stark contrast to traditional public schools.  Whereas democratic schools rely on students to learn and practice freedom, responsibility, and democracy, traditional public schools condition students to compliance, external control, and authoritarianism. Whereas democratic schools count on students’ failures to help them learn; traditional public schools punish failure.  Whereas democratic schools operate on notions of equality, traditional public schools establish strict hierarchies amongst adults, amongst children, and between adults and children.

Whereas democratic schools hold students accountable for their learning, traditional public schools don’t.

Moreover, the biggest obstacle to schools, teachers, and students holding themselves accountable for learning in public schools is our state and federal governments’ insistence that schools, teachers, and students are accountable to them.

American public education is consuming itself in pursuit of a damning syllogism: adults can only consider themselves the best when children do the best on tests of what adults say is the minimum children should know. With the way public schools are structured, rewarded, and punished, it’s disingenuous to say otherwise despite all the rhetoric we can cite.

Who knows what our kids know?  Who knows what they can do?  It’s been forever since public education dared share power with them – or with their parents and teachers. Without power, how far do we really expect our kids to go?  To the top of the pile of test-takers.  Here’s the thing: when you play King of the Mountain, there’s only one King of the Mountain.  Hence, our public education system more closely resembles the medieval great chain of being than your typical day at a democratic school.

So what?

We’re all truly accountable for whatever measure of complicity or resistance we practice in this system.  Our classrooms and schools and communities and nation reflect our collective will or lack thereof in education reform.

What can we do in public education to restructure schools in support of true and direct democracy?

I suggest we start a federal “March to Democracy” initiative to fund the democratization of American public schools with the following provisions:

  • Provision 1: Reassert the government’s support for and belief in democracy in public education.  Provide grants for states and consortiums willing to start large-scale pilots of small democratic public schools carved out of the larger schools spread across their turf.  Establish a comparison cohort of students of identical demographics at traditional public schools.  Be patient and collect data over, say, 10 years.  Research the educational, vocational, and affective outcomes of students from the democratic and traditional schools.  Ask which group values democracy more. Ask which group values education more.  Ask which group feels more job satisfaction.  Ask which group feels more fulfilled.  Ask which group feels more “wounded by school.”
  • Provision 2: Make accountability democratic.  Draft federal laws, state laws, and local policies that provide multiple avenues to accreditation so that individual school communities and their LEAs can participate in some form of democratic discourse about the curriculum, instruction, and assessment they’ll use to show student learning.
  • Provision 3: Provide federal community engagement grants to SEAs and LEAs working to increase student, parent, and teacher governance of traditonal public schools.

Reward democracy.  Split money evenly between all applicants willing to participate in democratic public education.  If every school division in America submits a viable plan, give each division an equal piece of the pie.  See what KIPP does.

Our nation will save its democracy and improve its chances to lead the world when students feel free to learn, rather than sentenced to test, fail, or drop out.

Teachers: can you run a democratic classroom? What stands in the way?  How can administrators help?  How can you support yourself as students take time unlearning school?


About Chad Sansing

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


2 thoughts on “March to Democracy

  1. Chad,

    Imagine all the money that would be saved and available to be reallocated if we did away with the hierarchy of public school systems. I would think this to be reason enough to experiment with a democratic education structure, if a community were savvy enough to support such an idea.

    While I think your provisions and “March to Democracy” are a good idea, I think grassroots support is what is truly lacking. We could have single-payer health care if enough of us wanted it, we could end the war in Afghanistan and Iraq if enough of us wanted it, the same goes for democratic education.

    So perhaps a question is how can we create the public will needed to democratize our schools?

    Posted by Adam Burk | March 8, 2010, 7:29 pm
    • Adam, that’s the question. I wonder if a democratic public charter school alliance could scale up enough successful schools to give democratic education the legs it needs to run with KIPP and its ilk in pursuit of funding and popularity. Perhaps graduation rates, educational and vocational outcomes, and examples of students’ work could compete against yearly testing and the images of students effectively coerced into compliance with it.

      That may indeed be the wrong race to run, but I’m impatient.

      Regardless, we need to open public democratic schools with alternative accreditation plans to help promote the approach and provide student school choice within districts. Perhaps newly established democratic schools could decide on their own how to best share their work with – and garner support from – their communities.

      Your idea of appealing to tax-payers’ wallets also sounds good to me. Certainly some members of our local schools’ communities would appreciate that kind of financial efficiency, as well as any assertion of local control over schools – though I don’t know that those community members have ever imagined student control.

      Thanks for the reflection and question –

      Posted by Chad Sansing | March 8, 2010, 8:57 pm

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