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CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.

Striving for Democracy in Schools

What is the goal of American education? We may each have our own answers, and Dr. David Labaree of Michigan State University, posed three general goals in his 1997 article: “democratic equality - schools should focus on preparing citizens; social efficiency - schools should focus on training workers; and social mobility - schools should prepare individuals to compete for social positions.” Labaree argues that these goals are in conflict, with the first two viewing education as a public good and the last viewing education as a private good.

This article was the first I read during my Education Policy Master’s program, and I can’t seem to shake it from my head. How can we address seemingly conflicting goals in one system? What education goal am I most invested in? 

I can answer that latter question and will go ahead and show my hand - I seat myself in the “democratic equality” camp. I believe schools should equip and empower students to navigate and shape society in order to deconstruct oppressive social institutions like racism and classism by being places that model democratic decision-making. Students should leave school able to imagine, empathize, debate, and advocate.  

This begs the question, what does a school look like that strives to prepare its students to participate in a democracy?  

I recently attended the Coalition of Essential Schools’ final Fall Forum, and democracy seemed to be a theme in the sessions I attended. The election and its divisive nature came up frequently with educators asking: how do we prepare our students to understand what happened during the 2016 election and prepare them to participate in an increasingly more polarized society?  

Deborah Meier lead a conversation on “The Meaning of a Democratic Education”, asking thought-provoking questions about the look and feel of a democratic school. During the discussion, people brought up topics like student voice and choice, restorative justice, and user designed learning, but Deborah wasn’t satisfied with that. She reframed the question: “What are the adults doing in a school focused on providing students a democratic education?” 

She was encouraging us to move beyond the classroom and into the structures of the school, asking us to consider how faculty are selected, how decisions are made, and who chooses the curriculum. Schools tend to be hierarchical, with decisions being made at the top and classroom teachers being “acted upon.” Intentional spaces for collaboration are not the norm in every school. Decisions aren’t typically made jointly, and there aren’t always structured means for voicing contrary opinions. She asked participants to consider: how often do teachers engage in discourse around school structures and norms? Simply seeing adults discuss their opinions with each other, she suggested, can be a powerful lesson for students. 

In order to model democratic citizenship, teachers need to be treated like democratic members in their schools, with voice and influence outside of their classroom. If we expect students to practice being - and ultimately become - engaged democratic citizens in school and society, we must show them democracy in action.   

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