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One Reform to Make Schools More Democratic

Deborah Meier continues her conversation with Harry Boyte. To read their full exchange, please visit here.

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 species 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 inevitably 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 legally 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, imagining alternatives and the other three of Mission Hill's and Central Park East's "habits 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, United States Congress, 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 price of not having done it long ago.

Deb

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