Tag Archives: democratic education

What is a Democratic-Free School?

When most people think of a “school”, particularly a school for young people, the image of kids sitting behind desks with a teacher at the front leading the class (as the “sage on the stage” as they say) generally comes to mind. Somewhere down the hall from this and other classrooms is an “office” including administrative staff and particularly the school principal who runs the school, including giving marching orders to and evaluating the teachers, and dealing with student disciplinary issues that are referred to them by the teachers.

The “governance model” is presumed to be completely hierarchical. Students at the bottom of the hierarchy get their lectures, assignments, evaluation, administrative and disciplinary rules from their teacher(s). Teachers are supervised and evaluated by their school principal. The principal acts as a conduit for the educational mandates on curriculum and pedagogy from the district, which is basically implementing the curricular and pedagogical standards set by the real school decision-makers, the state legislature, through the auspices of the state board of education and other related state bodies.

What is important for people to know is that there are at least two other very different models for schools existing in the real world, that are beyond the conventional imagining of most people. The better known (and more numerous) of these other models is what are often referred to as “holistic schools”, which look more at educating the “whole person” beyond compartmentalized academic subjects, and are generally based on the ideas of a visionary educator like Maria Montessori, Rudolph Steiner, or John Dewey. Though elements of their educational philosophies have worked their way into conventional U.S. schools, it is an interesting discussion for another time why most conventional schools in the U.S. do not fully embrace the educational visions of these great thinkers.

The road least taken (and perhaps qualifying as the “Rodney Dangerfield” of school models), are schools that include students in the schools’ governance and allow those students to completely direct their own learning. Such schools are often referred to as “democratic-free” schools, and though rare, can be found in many parts of the U.S. and in countries around the world. Though highly unorthodox they are anecdotally judged effective by most who have studied them, but the very nature of an educational content and process that can be different for every student and is not externally dictated, makes them difficult if not impossible to measure by any standard school evaluation metrics.

Here is my best shot at an overview of this democratic-free school model.

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School Based on Universal Human Rights?

FYI… this piece is way more initial rumination and not yet a polished argument… but here goes!

Israeli teacher Yaacov Hecht, one of the founders of the “democratic education movement” says that he was inspired to reinvent schools in a democratic paradigm, a paradigm that “sees as its main goal the education towards human dignity” as set forth in the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. In his book, Democratic Education: A Beginning of a Story, Hecht says…

Democratic education considers the protection of human rights in school as a necessary and basic condition for the beginning of work on education towards human dignity… The basic assumption of a democratic school is that a young person, living in an environment which respects him and protects his rights, will know in the future to protect human rights in all three spheres…

One – “my” and “our” human rights
Two – the rights of “the other” or “the different”
Three – the rights of the whole of humanity

Before I even attempted to plunge into Hecht’s educational philosophy, I thought I better read the thirty articles in the UN Declaration myself, which I did. I think we tend to not apply principles of human rights always to children because… they’re children. If we love them, feed them, educate them and keep them safe, that’s all the human rights they could possibly want or need, right? But then trying as always to think outside the box, I think there are at least seven of the principles called out in the UN Declaration that I find particularly applicable youth and education and offer an interesting perspective on our current prevailing public education model and the possibilities for a new more democratic approach.

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Advocating a Portfolio Model for Public Education

Jal Mehta
I was happy to see this piece, “A Case for Educational Markets From the Left”, by Jal Mehta, an Assistant Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, featured on Education Week‘s daily e-newsletter. I am pleased that the kind of arguments for educational transformation that I passionately write about, including many paths and focus on more democratic governance are getting a broader airing than I am able to give them. There are maybe 100 to 200 people who read my blog, while this piece is being put forward to a much larger audience of educational “thought leaders” who read Education Week.

In Mehta’s arguments I see another person like myself trying to think outside the box of conventional liberal/progressive wisdom on education “reform”…

I’ve been struck by the vitriolic reaction that always emerges around proposals to increase market forces in education. I wanted to use this post to say something about why even some of us on the left see some value to markets in education.

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Thoughts on Teachers Wanting a Voice

Primary SourcesTeacher magazine published the results of a survey of 40,090 K-12 teachers, possibly the largest national survey of teachers ever completed and including the opinions of teachers in every grade and every state. The survey, “Primary Sources: America’s Teachers on America’s School,” was conducted by Harris Interactive and paid for by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Scholastic Inc. You can download the full report at: www.scholastic.com/primarysources/pdfs/100646_ScholasticGates.pdf.

Here are some of the results I found most interesting… Continue reading →

Leonard Turton on Democracy & Education

Here is a provocative quote on democracy and schools, which I believe to be on the mark, from a person named Leonard Turton who I exchanged emails with on the AERO (Alternative Education Revolution Organization) listserv back several years ago. If you consider yourself a progressive person and you believe that our country should embody democratic principles, I think you need think long and hard about what he is saying, and if you can rationalize our current education system with those democratic principles… Continue reading →

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. Continue reading →

Democracy: A Solution for Off Track Educational Systems?

I saw the following Boston Globe article highlighted in the Public Education Network’s “Weekly NewsBlast”. The item, titled “English-only instruction rule doubles the dropout rate” with the synopsis given as follows…

A new report profiled in The Boston Globe has found that in the wake of a voter-approved law change six years ago that requires all students be taught in English, the high school dropout rate has nearly doubled for English language learners in Boston. The study, from the Mauricio Gastón Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts and analyzed data between 2003 and 2006, and portrays a school system ill-prepared to serve nonnative English speakers, about 38 percent of the Boston’s 56,000 students. In many cases, the district fails to evaluate properly and subsequently identify hundreds of students for special language instruction, and doesn’t give parents information on program options. Overall, the data show that the law, intended to accelerate English fluency, hasn’t helped English language learners to catch up with their English-speaking peers, in many cases leaving them further behind. Carol R. Johnson, superintendent of Boston schools, said the district will revamp the way it tests students for services, expand programs, and provide more comprehensive information to parents. “I think everybody recognizes we need to move with a sense of urgency,” she said. “Children need help and we need to help them now.”

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