Democracy in schools: Preached but not practiced
By Mark Phillips
Federal Hocking High School is a small school in northern Appalachia. The principal, George Wood, is a frequent contributor to The Answer Sheet. One of the many things that distinguishes this school is that students are heavily involved in the decision-making process, including teacher hiring, curriculum decisions, and the creation and enforcement of school rules. This school is notable because it is doing something that all schools should be doing but aren’t.
Schools are supposed to teach democracy, develop engaged and responsible citizens, and create an intelligent and street-smart electorate. They don’t.
I live in Marin, California, a county with a populace that has well above average educational and income levels and a relatively high voter turnout. The schools have a reasonably good reputation.
So I decided to speak with local educators about what the teaching of active democracy looks like in our high schools. While Marin may be atypical in some ways, my guess is that when it comes to student involvement in school decision-making, we are a very good microcosm of almost every county in the United States.
Traditionally our high schools have conceived of democracy as something to be taught in aocial atudies classes, not as something to be practiced. Student governments are commonly viewed as social planning committees. The perception is accurate. Most help plan and run school dances and other student events, nothing more.
The most telling and representative response came from a highly respected teacher who noted that student government was seen as a joke when he went to high school and seems to be about the same now. “Schools are a workplace and not particularly democracies,” he noted.
Another teacher who works with his school’s student government commented, “Voter turnout for student elections is abysmal. Student campaigns are empty and uninspired ... but I certainly don’t blame the students.... Students go through most of high school without ever being schooled in the notion of a civic obligation, a social contract, or the greater good.”
Looking further into our local educational landscape I found that two of our three major districts have student members on the school board. This sounds good, but while these student board members feel that they have a voice, none feel they influence decisions. Most importantly, they cannot participate in role call votes, the process used for all major decisions.
Additionally, while most of the high schools include “developing responsible citizens” as part of their mission statements, none of the county’s public high schools make any mention of democratic principles or the teaching of democracy in their mission/vision statements. This is apparently not a high priority.
The fact is that you can‘t effectively teach democracy without modeling it and can’t effectively teach students to be actively engaged citizens without enabling them to practice this. As John Stewart Mill noted, new voters lack the requisite knowledge and political sophistication but can gain it with practice. Our students get no opportunity to practice and as a nation we end up with an electorate that lacks both political knowledge and skills.
Schools may be workplaces, but they are supposed to be far more. They are supposed to be training grounds to prepare students to be active and effective citizens, and to help society become the best that it can be. This cannot be taught from books and lectures alone.
It has to be practiced. The few schools that effectively practice democracy, like Federal Hocking, demonstrate this continually.
I think there are two other reasons to empower students.
First, there is considerable evidence that student achievement and student engagement in a school can be increased if students feel they have a real voice. Federal Hocking is an example of this. As student involvement in school governance increased, the percent of students going to college from the school grew from 20% to 70%! By giving students more responsibility and demonstrating confidence in their ability to be effective, we motivate them to develop even more.
It is also patronizing to assume that those most effected by the decisions we make have little or no ability to effectively describe what they think is best for them. I believe it is also unethical.
Choosing to exclude students from decision-making roles totally disregards their perceptivity.
Most high school students operate at a level of consciousness that demands our respect. Student perceptions are often right on target in relation to curriculum, teacher quality, homework quality and quantity, and grading practices. The omission of this perspective from decision-making is both short-sighted and ethically indefensible.
The arguments against this role for students are extraordinarily weak ones. They are frequently founded on an underestimation of student maturity and wisdom that too often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But the leadership must come from administrators and teachers, in concert with student leaders. We cannot expect the students, who have been taught for years that they should not have a voice, to lead the way. This can start on a school level, but it would also be exciting to see a consortium of administrators, students, and teachers in every high school work collaboratively to bring about this change. If a small school in one of the most economically challenged areas of Ohio can accomplish this, I think any district can.
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| January 30, 2011; 11:45 AM ET
Categories: George Wood, Guest Bloggers, High School, Mark Phillips, Student Life
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