Baby Steps toward Democratic Education: Advice if not Consent

In advocating for more democratic schools in a recent post as a way of identifying problems as they are emerging rather than after the fact, I realize that the concept of democratically run schools, whether run solely by adults or in conjunction with student youths, is a radical concept. As I understand the typical conventional school model today, the governance is much more hierarchical, starting at the state level where basic school structure and policy is set.

So, as best I understand it as a parent…

* State legislators and state education boards set basic funding, curriculum, policies and evaluation criteria for public schools and direct school districts to use the given funds to instruct students in that curriculum and follow those policies in doing so

* School district elected and appointed officials take these monies and marching orders from the state and have latitude beyond those mandates to decide how the students are presented the state-required curriculum and how other state mandates are carried out

* School principals take their marching orders from their district officials and have some latitude as to the hiring and firing of teachers and other school staff, use of school budget, detailed procedures for meeting state testing requirements, and school offerings beyond the extensive state-required core curriculum

* School teachers take their marching orders from their principals and attempt to deliver the state-mandated curriculum to their students in a way that will effectively convey the information and develop the knowledge and skill level of their students

* Students, at the bottom of this hierarchy, take their marching orders from their teacher(s) and attempt to master the state-mandated curriculum and additional course work that the given school may provide as an elective, and demonstrate that mastery by receiving good academic marks and scoring well on standardized tests

Democracy already plays a role at the state level in the election of the legislators and state superintendent who set basic state school policy, and at the district level in the election of the school board, the mayor, and other local officials that may play a role in school district governance.

Below the district level, my understanding that the democratic process is maybe only in play to the extent of district officials seeking the advice (but not consent) of their school principals and those principals soliciting the advice (but not consent) of their teachers and other school staff. In my mind, having the position and power to advise, even though you do not have a vote to consent is at least the baby steps of democratic process.

But when it comes to the youth who are the students at the bottom of this hierarchy, they appear generally to not be involved in the governance of their schools – neither advising nor consenting to the rules of their engagement – in any formal or structural way beyond the individual proclivities of the teacher or principal to informally seek students’ council.

Some question follow from this situation…

* Would it fundamentally destabilize this very hierarchical organization if the youth it was providing its services to were given at the very least an advisory role in school and district decision making?

* Would the management of the classroom and delivery of the curriculum be more effectively tuned if there was regular (say weekly) formal feedback solicited from students and seriously reviewed and considered by the adult school staff?

* Would teacher retention decisions and teacher’s approach to their teaching be better served if students gave their teachers formal evaluations at the end of a semester or a year?

* Would school decisions on budget, school policies and procedures, facilities usage, etc be better and more readily accepted (by students) if students were encouraged to participate in the meetings where those policies and procedures were instituted, reviewed and revised?

* Would violations of school policies and student grievances be better adjudicated if students participated in a “jury of their peers” for the students impacted by violations or grievances?

The way I see it, our society is transitioning from hierarchical institutions (run from the top, where your rank in the hierarchy is tantamount and you exercise power over others) to partnership institutions (run from the bottom where people are viewed more as equals and you exercise power with others). From my viewpoint, our public school systems generally represent much more that hierarchical model than the partnership one. But as humans and our society evolve and we develop more agency, these hierarchical organizations become more and more inefficient and vulnerable to the corruption of the powerful.

So as a parent, who has struggled and failed trying to get his two kids through our education system, I urge all of you to join me and support changes to that education that move it away from a hierarchical organization and towards more of a dynamic partnership one.

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2 replies on “Baby Steps toward Democratic Education: Advice if not Consent”

  1. Chris Molnar says:

    I am currently working on a dissertation proposal that explores the possibility of using the democratic educational model in existing post-secondary vocational education…. can we take your same thoughts and apply them to a school that is a private for profit venture designed to teach students a specific trade?

  2. Cooper Zale says:

    Chris… I think democratic principles can be applied to any institution, political, economic, educational, public or private. It is about acknowledging participants in that institution as a circle of peers and then applying techniques of democratic process to manage the selection of leadership and management and make governance decisions.

    As a starting point, search the Internet for

    * A. S. Neill and his Summerhill school in England

    * Daniel Greenberg and Mimsy Sadofsky and the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts

    * Yaacov Hecht and the Institute for Democratic Education (IDE) in Israel

    * Chris Mercogliano and the Albany Free School

    * Jerry Mintz and the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO)

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