Creating Democratic Schools
The connection between public schools and democracy are, conceptually, as old as the republic. Yet most schools are extremely un-democratic, even for the adults! The following is a short essay about how we might consider making secondary schools more genuinely democratic.
Preparing Graduates to be Engaged Democratic Citizens
“Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” Those words, from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, mark the beginning of this nation’s commitment to public education. The need for an informed and educated citizenry as the backbone of a vigorous democracy was not lost on the founders of this country. Almost three hundred twenty years later, however, there is a disconnect between our schools and the democracy we live in --- which may well explain the fits and starts of democracy during recent elections. Our schools do little, if anything, to prepare our students to be active, engaged democratic citizens. Quite the contrary, in fact. Despite years of calls for reform, schools have remained places where students are expected to be passive, to follow instructions, and to never question authority. In John Dewey’s words, “most of present education fails because it neglects (the) fundamental principle of the school as a form of community life. It conceives the school as a place where certain information is to be given, where certain lessons are to be learned, or where certain habits are to be formed. The value of these is conceived as lying largely in the remote future; the child must do these things for the sake of something else he is to do; they are mere preparations. As a result they do not become a part of the life experience of the child and so are not truly educative.” (“My Pedagogic Creed” 1897). What I am suggesting here is that schools, in fact, can have a vibrant democratic life which not only empowers students in the present but prepares them for active lifelong participation in a democratic society.
I have participated in the creation of two democratic student governments. One was at a fairly “traditional” public high school in New York, the other at a more “innovative” charter school (7-12) in Massachusetts. In both cases the results were institutions where students exhibited a great sense of ownership of the school and, in each, had a distinct voice in the life of the school. I believe this system of genuine student voice, of true democratic government as part of the life of a school, can occur in all schools if the desire exists to truly prepare students for an active life as democratic citizens. If we are to move away from our current system where “student government” is most often a “student council” which is largely a glorified social committee, we need to consider what is necessary to develop genuine democratic institutions within our schools.
The Process – Getting Started
First and foremost, there must be a committed desire on the part of the faculty at a school to support the development of a genuine democratic student government. Teacher (and administrative) buy-in is essential. It is at least worth taking the time to discuss the notion of creating a democratic student government in a school among faculty, if only to better understand where we stand in relation to the idea of schools as agents for democracy. If the faculty doesn’t discuss the possibilities of democratic schooling seriously, doesn’t consider the pros and cons of such a system, then the issue will be dead in the water. However, if the faculty does believe that school should provide students with “a curriculum which acknowledges the social responsibility of education (and) must present situations where problems are relevant to the problems of living together” (Dewey, Democracy and Education), then a major hurdle toward the establishment of a democratic student government has been cleared.
And what might an administration and faculty have to gain from promoting such a system? First and foremost, I would contend, is refocusing school on education and not on the “processing and control” elements which dominate the day. No teacher I have ever met enjoys being a policeman in school, handing out “detentions” (which seldom accomplish their goal of changing behavior), worrying more about “crowd control” than teaching and learning. By bringing the students not only into the process of creating a democratic student government --- which has to start with writing a school’s Constitution --- but also into accepting the shared responsibility of what the daily life of the school will be like, teachers will begin to untether themselves from the work they like least and get on with what they love to do.
Of course getting student buy-in, the second crucial step in this process, is no easy feat either. Like many teachers who have heard the rhetoric of school reform over the years while witnessing little or no real change, students will not necessarily believe there is genuine commitment to encouraging their voices to be heard. Why would the adults give up their power? And why would we, the students, want responsibility when we can now exist free from it, even using it as an excuse --- “I’m not responsible.” Indeed, our students have lived in the system long enough to doubt that their school is suddenly interested in becoming a Petrie dish for democracy. This only reinforces why faculty buy-in and commitment is so crucial to the actual establishment of a democratic student government.
The Process – Implementation
The first step in the implementation of a democratic student government is drafting a school constitution. The seriousness of this step cannot be understated. All students must not only be made aware of this phase of the process but must be actively encouraged to become involved. Where does the time come from to do this? A simple way to start, I would suggest, is to focus on two places which already exist in most schools and lend themselves to involving all the students in the school: “homeroom” (or “advisory”) and social studies/history classes. Initiating the debate about a school constitution and a democratic student government, if only for five minutes a day, initially, in those venues can get the ball rolling. Again, if the faculty is not supportive and persistent in this endeavor, the likelihood of success greatly diminishes. If, however, the administration and faculty make the creation of a democratic student government a priority --- and an urgent one, at that --- the debate will take hold and the difficult issues of rights and responsibility will emerge. What are the non-negotiables --- sometimes legally drawn and sometimes locally mandated? In the more traditional school I worked in there was a distinction drawn between curricular issues (faculty domain) and “quality of life” issues (student government bailiwick). At times these intersected and the ensuing debates were energizing examples of genuine democracy at the school. When students determined that giving mid-year examinations on the heels of the end of the second quarter (which generally ended with a flurry of tests and essays) was a “quality of life” issue, some faculty believed the students were trying to make a curricular decision about when teachers could test, etc. After days of debate --- in the faculty room as well as in the student-faculty legislature --- a simple compromise was wrought. Like universities, the school would institute a three-day “reading period” between the end of the second quarter and the beginning of mid-term exams. While everyone might not have been thrilled with the decision, everyone accepted it and life went on quite smoothly. Most significantly, it illustrated that students felt they had a voice in their school and would exercise their right to use it. Had the students not actively participated in the drafting of the school constitution there would have been no debate and, worse, no questioning of their community and its day to day life.
A crucial element in the writing of a new school constitution is that the document clearly articulates a student-faculty legislature. In researching school constitutions on the internet (simply Google “high school constitutions”) what appeared over and over again were constitutions which spent a great deal of time delineating student offices for a “school government” with a clear absence of faculty engagement. If students are to truly learn about democracy in action, all the stakeholders in the school (and that includes staff personnel as well as faculty) need to be represented. If the constitution does not clearly specify whois represented and what the powers of the legislative body are in relation to the day to day life of the school it is an empty document.
The Process – Sustainability
For a democratic student government to take hold and sustain itself over time basic institutional habits must develop. This is where certain simple changes in a school’s routine (particularly if it is “traditionally” structured) can facilitate the transition from student council to empowered student government. Using homerooms/advisories as plenary representative groups responsible for raising issues (the quality of school food, the clear delineation of due process for transgressing school rules --- particularly if there is a student/faculty judiciary stipulated in the constitution, on/off campus privileges, etc.) is one of the easiest ways to bring democratic decision-making into the daily life of the school. Using social studies/history “current events” classes as a focus for school and/or community issues is another venue which easily lends itself to raising student awareness of the rights and responsibilities they need to learn to embrace. Operating classrooms based on a student-teacher drafted “classroom constitution” developed at the beginning of the school year is another way to embed the principle of democracy throughout the school. Scheduling weekly sessions of student-faculty legislature meetings is essential to demonstrate that the constitution has created a living body and not an occasional “crisis-management” or social calendar tool.
The most crucial element to sustainability of a democratic student-faculty government, to my mind, is the insistent support and engagement of the faculty. If the adults in the school do not demonstrate an enthusiasm for democracy, the students certainly won’t. Not all faculty will climb on board, of course. When I first began working on developing a student-faculty legislature in the “traditional” school I was working in, one colleague assured me that I was “turning the asylum over to the inmates.” Happily, they not only proved him wrong but, within five years, we proudly watched as one of our seniors (who had turned 18 in December) mounted a magnificent campaign for mayor of the small town we were in. After organizing a campaign staff, developing a platform (with appropriate documents), contacting the local League of Women Voters to host a local access cable television debate with his opponent, and doing a door to door, as well as railroad platform campaign (it was a commuter community), he garnered 43% of the vote. More significantly, voter turnout in the town increased by 600%! Had it not been for the continued enthusiastic support of the faculty throughout the growing pains of the student-faculty legislature, I’m sure we never would have seen such a remarkable demonstration of the lessons learned about democratic participation in one’s community.
The Need for Student Engagement in Democracy
We are living in an age in which it is easy for our students to become cynical and turned off to the democratic process. As educators, it is our responsibility to facilitate the democratic impulse in our students. We cannot do this in schools as they currently operate. As we watch individual rights and liberties come under attack in the name of “security” we must be able to produce students who can engage in intelligent debate over what rights we might be willing to sacrifice for security. Most schools treat students as “subjects,” not citizens, in their own buildings. They do not have a genuine voice in the life of their school and, as a result, feel no ownership or investment in the day to day life of their institution. What I am proposing here, like the American Revolution itself, is a transition for students to move from subjects to citizens in their own world, their school. It is not an easy task, but it is a vitally important one if we are to graduate students prepared to actively participate in a democratic society. Teachers and administrators must lead the way but then, ironically perhaps, get out of the way. No one ever learned to play the piano by watching someone else do it. Citizens do not learn to be actively democratic by reading about it or being shown historical examples. We must begin to devise ways to transform our schools into genuinely democratic institutions which promote the active, democratic participation of our students if we hope to produce graduates prepared to deal with the challenges ahead in the 21st century. Transforming our schools into democratic institutions for students and faculty alike would be a logical place to start.
Archimbault, Reginald (ed.) John Dewey on Education, The University of Chicago Press (1964).