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Leadership and Activism, Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings

Do You Want Democratic Education?

Michael Josefowicz (@ToughLoveforX) frequently helps me sharpen my thinking via Twitter, especially in regards to marketing #edreform and making it easy for the public to say yes to big change. Consequently, I’ve been thinking about “yes” questions for students, teachers, parents, and administrators – questions like

  • Do you want students to do more than test prep?
  • Do you want students engaged in learning?
  • Do you want students making new discoveries?
  • Do you want students to contribute to their communities?
  • Do you want students to graduate from high school?
  • Do you want graduates to participate in democracy?
  • Do you want to recruit and retain the best new teachers for your students?
  • Do you want students and communities to respect teachers?
  • Do you want teachers to learn and improve throughout their careers?
  • Do you want schools that capture your imagination?

While it’s easy for stake-holders to answer “yes” to these questions, it’s really daunting to think about taking on the systems and habits of American education to achieve any of their aims. I’m reading Creating a New Teaching Profession, edited by Dan Goldhaber and Jane Hannaway, wherein educators like Frederick Hess propose radical reversals in current practices that make a whole lot of sense, but face a whole lot of resistance from the status quo in both policy and stake-holder expectation.

Our American public education system is built on coercing school systems, administrators, teachers, students, and parents to accept standardized testing as the sole measure of their worth. Even our reform efforts are geared toward finding the next big thing in raising standardized test scores and scaling-up test-prep programs. Our national dialogue about education has been shackled by politicians, the media, and the coerced and compliant school system we live with every day. We’re not really looking for innovation; we’re looking for replication of specifically successful programs on a standardized scale, and we’re looking to label and punish stake-holders of different circumstances who can’t be the second-coming of Rafe Esquith or his students.

We’re either effective or ineffective by test scores. We’re either safe or in improvement by test scores. We’re either accountable by test scores or irresponsible. We’re either/or.

Humanity isn’t going to survive by either/or. People are complex; they have complex needs and wants. People are not either/or. Nevertheless, we’re schooling children to be either winners or losers as measured by arbitrary, external, and damaging means and rhetoric. The kicker is that such reductionist labels and their K12 subsets carry complex consequences for kids that schools obfuscate by dint of their attempts to exert external control over students, their narrow, rear-view mirror focus on last year’s test scores, and their numbing, lockstep recreation of the same structures and practices every year at every grade level.

School should acknowledge the complexity of children (and their teachers), assess and respond to their growth, take into account their passions for learning, and celebrate their successes, even when faced with children’s differences in readiness and disposition. How many more kids who might have learned this or that in a year or two need to be hurt and tracked for a lifetime because they don’t read or compute at a certain level by a certain age decided on by adults outside of their lives? If we had a number, would that make it OK?

So, why have public education? Why attempt more than baby-sitting? Why isn’t standardized testing good enough?

Because we need a country of graduates and a world of citizens who can speak “and” instead of “either/or.” We need communities that embrace and lift their schools and teachers instead of – sometimes justifiably – tearing them down because of past hurts. We need schools that offer their communities solutions to local problems led by local leaders. We need schools that show students the impact of their interests on their learning, the impact of their learning on their communities, and the impact of serving their communities on their lives. We need democratic schools that show kids that what matters most is what they choose do with their learning. School should be about discovering who we are – as individuals and peoples- through the challenges we face and successes we build together. School should not be about recounting for our gatekeepers what they had to learn in order to get the approval of their gatekeepers.

So what needs to happen? How do the levels of public education need to change in order to transform public schools into places of joyful learning and real democracy?

  • The federal government should fund schools that have and solve larger problems than raising test scores. Certainly there are more authentic ways to close the achievement gap, increase attendance and graduation, and prepare students for colleges and careers.
  • Local school systems should develop administrators and teachers who can adapt to students’ needs and structure their schools according to the principles of authentic, democratic, and project-based learning. School systems should develop educators who can look for local and niche solutions at the student level, rather than for mechanistic, division-wide programs that standardize learning and don’t require teachers.
  • Administrators should ask themselves the questions I posited at the top of this post and compare their answers to their practices in staffing, scheduling, and teacher evaluation and development.
  • Teachers should work to become co-learners and let go of authority and powers not shared with students. Teachers should push for waivers and greater freedom in curriculum, assessment, and instruction, and work to unteach students’ school habits and unlearn their own. Teachers should design opportunities for synthesis and application of big ideas in individualized learning and to community-based problem-solving. I wonder how many teachers who teach canned programs think that they can beat the programs’ results through authentic learning. I wonder how many of them have told their administrators this and asked for the freedom to teach with accountability. I wonder what their administrators have said. My one-two interview combo for prospective administrators has become, “If you find a program, will I have to teach it? If so, why do you want or need me?” Teachers might also consider circumventing many systematic restraints by forming teams to charter truly innovative schools.
  • Students should unlearn habits of complicity and habitual resistance to authority (not their fault). Students should question their teachers about work they has no relevance for them and learn to suggest to their teachers ways they might learn better or engage more with school. Students should plug learning that is relevant and promote it to their friends, parents, and school boards. They should get out the message: “This is how we learn; this is what we like; but this is how we feel at school and on day one of colleges and careers having been taught to tests.”
  • Parents should question administrators and teachers about the nature of work asked of their children and about how it prepares them for colleges and careers. Parents should request teachers who spark their kids’ learning and exert pressure on schools to make that kind of learning the norm. Parents should promote what excites their children about learning at school and question whatever saps their children’s passions. It’s not that teachers can’t reach kids; it’s that systems get in the way. We can support teachers in reaching our kids in more nuanced ways than insisting that they’re right or wrong. We can give feedback to schools to point out where authentic learning is alive and well. We can point out to schools their own local solutions to the problems of engagement and relevance.

This is a hard time during which to stand up for something in American public education. The economy begs us to be risk-averse in providing for our families and serving our students. Someday, though, something’s gotta give. This is the one either/or scenario in which I believe.

Either we change what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, or we maintain the status quo. Either way we face the world and its problems. I’d rather have a network of “and” on everyone’s side than a single switch of “either/or” separating us.


About Chad Sansing

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


5 thoughts on “Do You Want Democratic Education?

  1. A very thoughtful post that deserves a thoughtful response. To do it justice will need a little more time, a night’s sleep, and the inspiration to strike. But even before that happens I thought it might be useful to put a couple of things into the mix.

    Saying anything really useful is critically dependent on very small details of the specific condition. It’s in the nature of complexity. In the absence of that information all I can offer are some of the princples that have worked for me in the past.

    1. Assume that everyone is smart and good. If they make stupid decisions it’s not because they are stupid. Everyone, even including politicians, love doing the right thing.

    2. People tend to make decisions to minimize risk. The motivation of evangelists to take risks in the service of getting better. But evangelists are a very small group. That’s just a fact of life. Somehow, some people because of their unique histories are natural evangelists. A true value to every organization and community. But consider the disruption to a school or community if everyone were an evangelist.

    3. The motivation of power holders is to manage risk. Risk takes different forms for different people. I’ve always found that an empathic approach helps to understand the particular risk of a particular person.

    From what little I’ve been able to glean from tweets is that right now in your district the issue is budget cuts. Not really a surprise because every school board in the States is facing the same problem.

    I assume budget allocation decisions are made by the school board. My guess is that they know they have to cut budgets and have no good choices. Whatever they decide someone is going to get hurt. The traditional approach is to make the case “don’t cut me.” I’m saying this is what’s happening in your situation, but for now let’s say it is.

    So, the problem is then to help them make the best decision about what to cut, when and suggest possible new sources of revenue. In the service of solving that problem let me throw some ideas in the comments. Maybe something will be useful.

    1. Consider an experiment in blended learning. A combination of on line and F2F might mean a way to both start some good teaching practices and lower the budget. Maybe four days for some teachers and classes + online as appropriate.

    2. Are there different ways to utilize the physical plant. Perhaps community groups or a local health agency has some budget for space. Is there some scheduling solution that would allow some of the building to be rented for events for non profits in the community?

    3. If there is a professional development budget, redirect it to some teachers by using twitter or other online tools for co creating PD. If your district is anything like NY, the Prof Dev budget is mostly a waste of time and money.

    4. Consider projects involving students, staff and community to start a sustainable revenue stream. One thing that occurs to me is having the kids produce Art, have them printed and sell them at auction to parents and community. Another possiblity that I’m pretty sure would have legs is to consider a student/faculty/community newspaper or book. Going forward the district might earn revenue through sales and advertisements from local community health and social service organizations.

    You’ve raised many other issues. Specifically the notions of getting to yes for various constituencies. My top of the head notion is to divide the list into must have, nice to have for each stakeholder. Also I think it’s important to remember that politicians are very important stakeholders. At the top that means the Governor. Get the Governor on your side and everything else is easy. Precisely how to do that is an interesting question.

    If I have more that might be useful, I’ll be back. Meanwhile, see ya on Twitter 🙂

    Posted by Michael J | March 22, 2010, 10:11 pm
    • Michael, thanks for such thoughtful comments and willingness to help. I’ve been reading Sergiovanni’s Moral Leadership, so your encouragement to trust that that everyone is smart and good is timely and speaks to my career experience. I don’t blame any stake-holders for the systems we have, but the systems frustrate meaningful change in public education. I definitely exhort us to take on the systems, but I also realize that we need one another to do so.

      I agree with you about management and risk aversion. My suggestion to public education would be to formalize and manage risk-taking R&D work by teachers pursuing new schedules, structures, and opportunities for learners. I think some states’ charter laws allow for this, and that federal grants also pay some service to the idea of innovation, but I’m concerned that innovation and replication of very traditionally structured, authoritarian instructional programs are getting confused.

      Our budget situation is one of those local complexities you site. Despite public comment overwhelming in support of raising taxes to support public education, several of our county supervisors kept campaign promises not to raise taxes. So now taxes aren’t to be raised, but real estate assessments have dropped, creating a tax cut at the expense of schools and other core services that the public clearly supports and wants to fund as fully as possible. Everyone is hurting; I acknowledge that absolutely. However, I think fully funding an already-reduced school budget to minimize the loss of core services to kids should be our county’s first priority.

      I’m with you on blended learning, too. I’d also like to increase the number of virtual choices open to students and offer more choice in pacing and attendance at F2F schools. With the kinds of learning opportunities and assessments we can now deliver, the amount of time spent in a chair in a classroom should not be a factor in grading or credit accumulation.

      I know several schools host community organizations, but I don’t know how much revenue schools generate from renting.

      I would pilot a redistributed, self-directed professional development program in a heartbeat.

      I just got a policy briefing on selling & licensing student work. I hope to design and implement something soon, and to post on it.

      Finally, we have been visited by our state Secretary of Education, Gerard Robinson, and we’re very excited to be working with him and the governor to expand the role of charter schools in meeting the learning needs of Virginia’s students.

      Thanks again for sharing your thinking with us at CoopCatalyst!


      Posted by Chad Sansing | March 25, 2010, 1:16 pm
      • It all sounds very promising. Congrats. Something to consider, the amount of revenue generated in year one, is much less important than demonstrating that it can scale and create an ongoing revenue stream going forward.

        That is precisely what either a venture capitalist or this new generation of philanthropy is searching for. Seed money makes sense to them. Continuous support does not.

        When you are at the next stage, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. Lots we can do together on blogs and/or twitter.

        Posted by Michael J | March 25, 2010, 3:44 pm
  2. Chad,

    Great post, and I will say more later. Right now I just wanted to point out one passage I particularly liked, as it seems achievable now with the models and research to support it: “School systems should develop educators who can look for local and niche solutions at the student level, rather than for mechanistic, division-wide programs that standardize learning and don’t require teachers.”


    Posted by Adam Burk | March 23, 2010, 6:26 am
  3. Thanks for highlighting that passage, Adam. I want to write soon on how imperative this kind of teacher development is. I’m looking at online and virtual schools and corporate education. In many models, instructional design is a separate task, role, and job from teaching, which is actually delivery of the instructional design. I think public school teachers have to take note. There is no guarantee that teaching won’t become delivery of someone else’s instructional design. In many classrooms, it already has. Who do we want to be as teachers? For what do we want to be paid? What is that worth? Ultimately, is it in our best interest to support and enact democratic education, or to go along with the status quo under which we make it a reasonable expectation that companies will tell us what and how to teach just as we tell students what and how to learn?

    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 23, 2010, 9:27 am

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