Democratic Schooling

I have argued in speech and writing for years that democracy is not “natural.” Although it is well within our human capacities it is not our “default” position. To demonstrate this would take longer than this blog/web allows. But I think there are good solid reasons why as a specie we retreat to authoritarian solutions so often. We cut corners when it seems too important to trust “our members,” our fellow citizens, etc. Sometimes we do it with open eyes and often we do it with eyes closed. We organize our organizations, our schools, our towns, cities and federal governments in ways that make some have a head start, extra weight, etc, etc. I am even in favor of some of these obstacles we place on “pure” forms of democracy.

As an educator the place I have tried to explore and work with creating Democratic organizations has been in my schools. As we designed and lived with our original plan at Mission Hill (the K-8 school I was one of the founders of in Boson in 1997) we saw flaws and we wrestled with them. Some we changed, others we lived with because we could not see how to improve them. We did not include everyone on our Governing Board, like the cook and maintenance staff. Probably we should have? We did not include students for many years, and then just 7th and 8th graders. I can defend this decision but what were the trade-offs? We worked out a consensus system that required the approval of three out of the five elected representatives of each constituency group to move ahead. We also gave the principal the power to delay a vote if he/she felt it was a matter of the health/safety of children or fiscal irresponsibility—two areas he/she was legally responsible for. In case of a paralyzed situation (like we have had in D.C.) we had a plan for bringing in mediators and if need be, a new vote of representatives, or a change in leadership.

It was in working these out that I learned to understand more about the problems a democracy inevitability runs into. It worked for us as well as it did because it was only the tip of the iceberg. Democracy pervaded the school’s culture in so many particulars, including how we held family/teacher conferences, how we arrived at curriculum decisions, how we decided on the agenda of staff meeting and retreats, and much more.

I believe that it is such experiences that most citizens lack—have literally never seen or been participants of. We spend 12 years of our youth in authoritarian settings, where no one we encounter has democratic rights over the important decisions being made daily. In a school like Mission Hill, and some other brave public schools, we are exploring what would happen if all our constituents felt “this place belongs to you and me.” We agreed to disagree in public on purpose, so we would all learn to disagree in useful ways that did not hurt the school. We discussed power—who had what powers—with the students and among ourselves—the adults. It is time consuming, but it is probably no more time consuming than adding a Civics class, which isn’t a bad idea either.

We cannot afford to let our citizens reach 18 without such real life experience. It is far too costly. They need to be apprentice citizens first, and they need to be real citizens of their schools long before they are of age to be legal independent citizens of the larger society. And, course, we need teachers who are citizens of their schools and play a part in all decision made, except where it is agreed to delegate them or where basic rights are in play. And even then, nothing should be delegated permanently. We need schools that focus on habits of mind that make it easier to trust each other, including habits of examining evidence, imaginings alternatives and the other three of Mission HIIl’s and Central Park East’shabits of mind”, plus a few we forgot: like “compared to what?” Plus quite different ones others come up with.

The first reform I would make if I were … what? – is that every publicly funded school (and maybe institution) must develop a plan of governance that can be defended as explicitly democratic and where those most affected have the freedom to make important decisions with the fewest possible exceptions. In Catholic theology this is called “subsidiarity.” Yes, there must be exceptions laid down by larger and broader based governing bodies (like a locally elected school board, Congress of the United State or the State Legislature or the Supreme Court). Mistakes will be made. But that is at the heart of democracy—the right to make one’s own mistakes— and one reason it is “not natural” for humans who seem inclined to shrink from uncertainties and mistakes. .

It requires a kind of unfounded “as if” trust that has some limitations but which we feel we can safely, although not always happily, abide by. Let us start by practicing it where governance hits the daily road of young people’s lives. Tomorrow is already too late, but we are paying a piece of not having done it long ago.

9 Responses

  1. Excellent point, and like democracy, extremely hard to do. Too bad administrators are incentived not to structure schools democratically. And too bad school leaders are not brave enough to let their data falter while teaching kids to problem solve in a messy yet egalitarian way.

  2. Why won’t you consider a school board for every school?

  3. I have read your books and believe in your philosophy. I worked with your son Nick many years ago. To me democracy means those who may be affected by a decision should have input into that decision. Public schools offer a great opportunity for this process. Why is it so difficult to implement?

  4. Public Schools are stronger when they can operate democratically. Unfortunately, my district which is located just outside of Denver, Colorado does not operate this way and certainly the schools within it don’t. I have been with my district for almost 22 years now and I have just come to a decision to leave. It has been difficult to say the least to create any change towards democracy within in it. The students are suffering, the teachers and other staff are miserable because of decisions about curriculum, about policy, and many other things that are being put in place without any input from those that are effected most. I agree, we desperately need our students (as well as their parents) to have experience with democracy. They need to see it in action and be a part of making decisions. I just struggle with how to make that happen with a principal and in a district that doesn’t operate this way. I can do some in my own classroom but it doesn’t sink in as well if it is not happening throughout the building. In a sense, leaving seems like giving up but this top down system is not what I want to contribute to.

  5. I wholeheartedly agree with your call for democracy in schools. A former high school student from one of my leadership classes said that she wished she had had opportunities earlier in her school career to use her voice as “your voice, if nothing else, can get you further in life.” It is so important to have the most relevant stakeholders, students and staff, involved in the decision making. It makes for effective schooling, empowered students and staff and the ability to use those skills in the larger society. Maure Ann Metzger, Ed.D., “A Prison Called School.”

  6. Why won’t you consider a school board for every school?

  7. Marie and Conrad,
    Schools boards can indeed be a course of democratic decision-making, but not always. There are plenty of school boards captured from inattentive publics by local special interests. These can too often become secretive and in-bred. They an also be at a distance from the actual classroom which can also become autocratic when “ruled” by a teacher who does not encourage democratic enquiry.
    Can school boards contribute to democratic decision-making? Sure. But they are only part of issue–they are not a silver bullet.

  8. British schools teach citizenship and that’s no bad thing, at least to understand how the system works. US schools should do the same if they don’t already. Including some basic economics in that wouldn’t be a bad idea at all for any democratic country. Just enough microeconomics to understand the principles of the free market, finding equilibrium at the price determined by the balance of supply and demand, perfect and imperfect competition, the effect of monopolies, that kind of thing, and the macroeconomics of the national debt. When I trained as an accountant, we got through all of that in six months, so it wouldn’t be too hard to do.

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