Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Democratic Policy Making and the Arts of Engagement: If the Public Schools Are the Primary Instrument of Transmitting and Preserving Democratic Values, Shouldn't They Themselves Enjoy Freedom and Self-Determination? Mr. Gallagher Reports on Nebraska's Efforts to Buck the Tide of outside Control and Test-Based Accountability to Keep Democracy in Public Education

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Democratic Policy Making and the Arts of Engagement: If the Public Schools Are the Primary Instrument of Transmitting and Preserving Democratic Values, Shouldn't They Themselves Enjoy Freedom and Self-Determination? Mr. Gallagher Reports on Nebraska's Efforts to Buck the Tide of outside Control and Test-Based Accountability to Keep Democracy in Public Education

Article excerpt

The [education] policy system must learn to be less arrogant and more bilateral so that its work is informed by the wisdom of good practice and its efforts do not override those of good schools.

--Linda Darling-Hammond

LESS ARROGANT and more bilateral. Linda Darling-Hammond's advice brings to mind a familiar refrain offered by critics of the Bush Administration's foreign policy. These folks remind us that, if we want to see a world in which democracy is "on the march," then we will need to act more democratically in our dealings with other countries, particularly those in the Middle East. Because democracy offers the promise of human freedom and self-determination in the context of shared commitment to the public good, it demands that we strive to build rich and mutual relationships through dialogue and diplomacy, rather than issue stern-father edicts from on high. Likewise, we cannot expect schools to contribute to the functioning of our democracy if they are denied freedom and self-determination through remote control and bullying policy making.

The parallel is more than casual. If democracy in the world depends in large part on democracy at home, then democracy at home depends in large part on what we do in, for, and to our schools. At their best, public schools are, in Gerald Bracey's terms, "democracy's workshops." (1) They are the places where we work on and work out our most pressing social problems--where we learn, as Deborah Meier so aptly puts it, "the art of living together as citizens." (2) At their best, schools make democracy both the means of learning (i.e., what teachers and students do) and the object of learning (i.e., what teachers and students learn about). They honor the fundamental democratic principle that people ought to have a say in the decisions that affect their lives.

The Kappan regularly publishes excellent articles promoting democratic civic education. For instance, the January 2005 cover story was devoted to that topic. But we need to recognize as well that schools will not protect and promote democracy if they are not treated and run democratically. As John Dewey wrote nearly a century ago:

   Until the public school system is organized in such a
   way that every teacher has some regular and representative
   way in which he or she can register judgment upon matters
   of educational importance, with the assurance that
   this judgment will somehow affect the school system,
   the assertion that the present system is not, from an
   internal standpoint, democratic seems justified. Either
   we come here upon some fixed and inherent limitation upon
   the democratic principle, or else we find in this fact
   an obvious discrepancy between the conduct of the school
   and the conduct of social life--a discrepancy so great as
   to demand immediate and persistent effort at reform. (3)

His coy posturing aside, Dewey saw this discrepancy quite clearly. In his writing, he returned repeatedly to the theme of the disempowerment of teachers at the hands of outside forces--whether economic interests, a vaguely defined "public," or a meddlesome educational bureaucracy. Dewey believed this disempowerment to be a crime against democracy and a violation of teachers' humanity:

   The dictation, in theory at least, of the subject-matter to
   be taught, to the teacher who is to engage in the actual
   work of instruction, and frequently, under the name of
   close  supervision, the attempt to determine the methods
   which are to be used in teaching, mean nothing more or
   less than the deliberate restriction of intelligence,
   the imprisoning of the spirit. (4)

But we never learned Dewey's lesson. In fact, public schools today are less in the direct control of those who spend their days in them, or those immediately affected by them, than ever before. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act and state regimes of standardized testing have located decision-making authority not in classrooms but in state conference rooms and corporate boardrooms. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.