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How Educators Can Model Democratic Decision Making In Schools

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Excerpted from "These Schools Belong to You and Me: Why We Can’t Afford to Abandon Our Public Schools" by Deborah Meier and Emily Gasoi (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with Permission from Beacon Press. The following excerpt was written by Meier. 


While few traditional schools encourage enough of the kind of open exchange described in the previous section, the level of student freedom to voice opinions tends to increase in accordance with the student body’s socioeconomic status, with schools that serve a predominantly poor population often severely limiting student expression to canned content. It’s as if we do not trust children from poor communities to develop and express their own ideas. This stance can take a particularly pernicious form when schools enlist the help of modern technology in this ignoble cause, creating surveillance technologies replete with hidden cameras, locker searches, and police patrols roaming the corridors, and relentlessly excluding those who resist. Even though the lion’s share of student-initiated school violence over the past twenty-five years has been carried out in majority-white schools (beginning with the Columbine High School massacre and most recently at Sandy Hook Elementary School), police-state security has only increased in schools that serve more than 50 percent students of color. The National Association of School Psychologists, along with numerous and educators, warns that heightened security measures negatively impact a school’s learning environment and undermine the fundamental relationships between adults and children, making it impossible to nurture the degree of trust and respect that should characterize all schools in a democracy.

Through my experience starting democratically governed schools, I have come to understand the importance of creating systems and structures that support open, honest resistance from all constituents—students, teachers, families, and even administrators, who must be in a position to resist external mandates that threaten the integrity of the school culture. Interestingly, over the years, I have found myself drawn to teachers who have been considered “troublemakers,” many of them had even been fired from their former schools for being such.

But with each school that I helped start—first, the Central Park East and Coalition Schools in New York City, and then, Mission Hill School in Boston—I gained insight into how to better work with staff to establish cultural norms that encourage healthy disagreement and pushback. We set up forums in which members of the school community were invited to air their grievances and share their ideas for improvement; we kept the school community small enough that everyone could come to know and feel known by everyone else; we created formal tools to facilitate a peer-review process that involved teachers and colleagues from sister schools and universities providing one another with critical feedback.


At Mission Hill School, we required that, upon accepting a position, teachers agree to meet together regularly to identify and hash out solutions for an array of problems that invariably arise in the daily operation of a school. We became more intentional about setting up structures that would make visible the nearly constant negotiations involved in establishing and sustaining a well functioning community—it was imperative that teachers see their administrators push back against external mandates and that students see their teachers engaged in discussions, sometimes heated, generally passionate, about how to address long- and short-term questions of practice.

The bottom line is, if we are ever going to fulfill the promise for schools to become incubators for democracy, then that task requires creating a democratic adult culture within the schools themselves that mirrors the one we want for children. For if we expect the young to grow into judicious citizens and thoughtful, competent stewards in matters of national and global welfare, then it only makes sense that we start by trusting local constituents— students, parents, teachers, and neighbors—to weigh in on and make decisions concerning the serious matters that affect their lives in school.

Unfortunately, the last two decades of education reform have increasingly been characterized by a disconnect between the original purpose of education and anything remotely resembling foundational ideas about democracy. As a sign of the times, over the past ten years or so, I have noticed a trend in the kinds of questions audience members tend to ask after my talks. Invariably, a teacher or principal stands up and urges me to share my thoughts on what the way forward might be -- where, in my travels across the education landscape, have I found glimmers of hope for democratic education? Sometimes they tell about their own struggles, attempting to find cracks in which to do authentic work with children in rigid school settings or fighting to keep alive the vision in a small, progressive school amidst myriad pressures to conform to some uninspired norm. Sometimes they ask a question simply to gain some sense of connection with like-minded practitioners in order to stay afloat professionally because they are losing steam or heart, or both.

I try to respond with optimism—there are indeed great public schools, new and established, rural and urban, in-system and charter sprinkled across the country. But regardless of a school’s values, vision, or organization, all face multiple obstacles to staying true to their underlying mission of public purpose. Most significantly, the unrelenting pressure to tie everything they do to student test scores, in conjunction with a growing disregard for the professional knowledge of educators, makes it near impossible for democratic (and other, otherwise innovative) schools to “hold values.” As a result, many great schools are being closed or mandated to employ more standardized practices and our most creative and inspired educators are leaving the public schools or education altogether, out of frustration.

What policies would reverse this trend? In a 2016 report by the Learning Policy Institute, the researchers cite conditions in schools as the primary factor influencing teachers’ decision of whether or not to leave the profession. In particular, the authors explain, “Accountability pressures focused on test preparation and leading to sanctions comprised the most frequently cited area of dissatisfaction, listed by 25% of teachers who left.” Clearly, policies that placed less emphasis on the production of and outcomes from numeric data would be a good first step in the right direction. Unfortunately, we live in a time when, despite widespread acknowledgement at all levels that standardized testing is “sucking all the oxygen out of the room,” as former secretary of education Arne Duncan ironically proclaimed in 2014, there has been a continuation, if not an intensification, of policies that require schools to value numeric data over human judgment.

Human judgment being at the heart of democratic practice in and beyond schools, this current state of affairs regarding mistrust of educators and an over-reliance on external “experts” (or, indeed, on those with business expertise in place of education experience), and the data they demand and produce leaves us with a fundamental conundrum. How can we hope to educate for democracy if children and the adults in their lives never have the opportunity to observe or practice it? And if such an education doesn’t take place in our public schools, then where will it happen?

Deborah Meier, author "The Power of Their Ideas" and "In Schools We Trust," has spent more than five decades working in public education as a parent, school-board member, teacher, principal, writer, and advocate. She helped found the Coalition of Essential Schools in the 1980s, under the leadership of Ted Sizer. In 1987, she received a MacArthur award for her work in public education.


Emily Gasoi has been an educator for more than two decades and was a founding teacher at Mission Hill School in Boston. Gasoi currently lives in Washington, DC, where she adjuncts at Georgetown University and is co-founder of Artful Education, an organization focused on helping schools and arts organizations improve practices related to creative teaching and learning.

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