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Posted at 11:45 AM ET, 01/30/2011

Democracy in schools: Preached but not practiced

By Valerie Strauss

This post was written by Mark Phillips, professor emeritus of secondary education at San Francisco State University and author of a monthly column on education for the Marin Independent Journal.

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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By Valerie Strauss  | January 30, 2011; 11:45 AM ET
Categories:  George Wood, Guest Bloggers, High School, Mark Phillips, Student Life  
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Comments

Excellent topic...there is a real-world representative democracy in my class and its remarkable to see how 10-year-olds exhibit the same behavior, positive and negative, as adults during political discourse and when there are high stakes.

For anyone interested, Richard Dreyfuss is devoting himself to the issue of civics education. Check out www.thedreyfussinitiative.org for more information.

Posted by: thetensionmakesitwork | January 30, 2011 1:42 PM | Report abuse

Ok, then. How about if EVERY workplace becomes a democracy?

In mine, I'd vote for an immediate pay raise and unlimited vacation.

How about if we just focus on teaching students the three R's. Once highly proficient at those, anyone can find out for themselves what a democracy is (and is not) and how to participate in one.

School district employees are responsible for setting the rules on educating students...not negotiating them. Anything less than that would be shirking this responsibility.

Posted by: WHY3 | January 30, 2011 6:50 PM | Report abuse

Response to Why3.

I may not have been clear enough. I am not advocating that students have an equal voice in making decisions. Nor am I even in favor of some "purist" form of democracy verging on anarchy.

Giving students No real voice rather than having them learn the problems and promise of democracy in action is contradictory to the very heart of what our country is supposed to be about.

As to the 3 R's..You pose an either-or situation that is totally fallacious. Schools like the one I describe and others do both with high effectiveness.

But I am appreciative that you're thinking about this and care enough to read this daily column!

Mark

Posted by: markpsf | January 30, 2011 9:29 PM | Report abuse

Response to Why3.

I may not have been clear enough. I am not advocating that students have an equal voice in making decisions. Nor am I even in favor of some "purist" form of democracy verging on anarchy.

Giving students NO real voice rather than having them learn the problems and promise of democracy in action is contradictory to the very heart of what our country is supposed to be about.

As to the 3 R's..You pose an either-or situation that is totally fallacious. Schools like the one I describe and others do both with high effectiveness.

But I am appreciative that you're thinking about this and care enough to read this daily column!

Mark

Posted by: markpsf | January 30, 2011 9:31 PM | Report abuse

"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."

If I had any tears left, I'd shed them in the face of the truth and beauty of this statement. Which would then be followed by those of utter despair that so few people understand how incredibly poorly we as a society treat our children.

Posted by: Coachmere | January 30, 2011 9:32 PM | Report abuse

"students are heavily involved in the decision-making process, including teacher hiring, curriculum decisions, and the creation and enforcement of school rules. "

It doesn't sound like democracy to me. I see your point about giving them a voice, but stretching it into something about "teaching democracy" just doesn't follow.

Posted by: staticvars | January 30, 2011 10:41 PM | Report abuse

"It is also patronizing to assume that those most effected by the decisions we make..." . This should be affected.

Posted by: c5flteng | January 31, 2011 1:30 AM | Report abuse

"It is also patronizing to assume that those most effected by the decisions we make..." . This should be affected.

Posted by: c5flteng | January 31, 2011 1:31 AM | Report abuse

It's not just that students reach adulthood without any practice in democracy. They don't believe they are part of society. A sixth-grade teacher warned her students about some thefts and said she would call the police if anything of hers got stolen; one student said, "Why? The police can't arrest you if you're under 18." A friend of mine, a store manager, noticed several teenaged customers with kitchen burns on their hands and discovered that the pizzeria owner in the shopping center refused to buy new oven mitts when the old ones developed worn spots and was violating several other safety and labor regulations. She asked the teenagers why they didn't call the Board of Labor Relations and report him. Not only did they not know it existed but they couldn't not file any kind of complaint because they were underage.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | January 31, 2011 11:20 AM | Report abuse

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