Democracy in US Public Education; a Historical and Theoretical Review
Democracy in US Public
A Historical and Theoretical Review
"You can't come to know what it means to be a
responsible, decision-making member in a
democracy if you are not in a classroom or a
school that practices democracy to begin with.”
(Wölk, 1998, p. 80)
What is Democracy?
de·moc·ra·cy noun di-ˈmä-krə-sē
: a form of government in which people choose leaders by voting
: an organization or situation in which everyone is treated equally and has equal
: a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and
exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation
usually involving periodically held free elections.
: the common people especially when constituting the source of political
: the absence of hereditary or arbitrary class distinctions or privileges
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary
What Does Democracy in
Education Look Like?
This should be an easy question to answer if we apply the basic definition
of Democracy to an educational setting.
Democratic Education is an educational ideal in which democracy is equally the goal, the guiding
philosophy, the structure of the educational institution, and the method of instruction.
Schools can be places to learn and enact democratic values such as justice, equality, respect and
Schools can be places that serve as as an experience of democratic individual–community
A school system that teaches all children equally well without labelling the white, or the rich, or the
male, or the American as more deserving of the best education possible, as well as the
subsequent economic privilege that such an education should provide, is an essential
component of an egalitarian and Democratic education. (bowles, giles sica 25years)
Schools can be places to teach and practice necessary democratic skills such as discussion and
debate amongst a community of equals.
Schools can model participatory democracies through empowered and meaningful student
governments and other student activities that allow for the practice of democracy. (TSADC)
Obligations of Democratic
Public schools, especially in a democracy such as ours, have the primary
institutional obligation to provide children with the academic skills
―particularly literacy, numeracy, and an acquaintance with other disciplines,
such as history, science, and the arts―
to learn about the world in which they live.
In addition, schools typically have had an important role in shaping youngsters'
traits and attitudes, such as their ingenuity, integrity, and capacity for hard
work both individually and collectively.
A democracy, unlike an authoritarian state, expects participation of its citizens in
shaping public opinion and making decisions about governing the nation. That
participation needs to be both informed by knowledge and leavened with
judgment, fairness, and respect.
Educational institutions nurture all those qualities.
Research Agrees with Graham
on the Role of Public Schools
The Carnegie Foundation= Center for Information and Research
on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) report, The
Civic Mission of Schools (Gibson & Levine, 2003), clearly
points out that since the beginning of public education in the
United States, our public schools have been the central way to
educate for full participation in our democracy. It also points
out that today our public schools are the only institutions with a
clear mandate and the ability to reach and educate every child
in the United States.(source)
So... have we achieved
democracy in our public
• Realization of these democratic ideals has been a goal of our public
education system since it's inception in the early 1900's. Over a
hundred years later our education system, as well as our country as
a whole, still do not reach these fundamental ideals.
• All of us live in a democracy, but when we leave our private lives and
enter a school or the workplace, democracy is suspended and we
are submersed back into an age akin to feudalism with it's
authoritarian power structures.
Some laudable steps have been made in this direction which we will
explore throughout this presentation.
There are many reasons, both diverse and systemic, in the private
and pubic sectors. Many of these are deeply imbedded in our
history and culture. All of them can be remedied.
From the very beginning employers and the well-to-do played the preeminent role in
the political process by which schools emerged and evolved.
Income inequality has persisted and steadily increased in our country, and with it
inequality has grown in access to education and the opportunities that come from
a good education. (Bowles & Gintis)
Government and the private sectors have invested comparatively little in public
education, research, technology, teacher education, community education
projects and schools.
Persistence of social, economic, racial and gender based inequality in education as
well as our society as a whole has limited equal access to educational
Democratic principles encourage individual criticism of the power structures in
which we participate. Administrators, policy makers, business leaders and others
at the top of those structures actively avoid any such educated criticisms.
A Brief Historical Review
Naturally we need look no further than the founding fathers
to begin our historical exploration of Democracy in
“The Founding Father's Enlightenment goals for education in the new
democracy had been knowledge and virtue, building as they did on Puritan
values in which both were valued equally.” (Graham p.16)
"If you expect a nation to
be ignorant and free and
in a state of civilization,
you expect what never
was and never will be."
-Thomas Jefferson, 1816
Actually, We Need to Look a
Little Further Back to a Lesser
Did you know there is a historical precedent for
democratic governance in the Native American
It turns out our founding fathers were being educated on democratic
principles by the Iroquois, and founded parts of our own
democracy from their rich democratic tradition.(James 2010)
• “The Iroquois Great Law of Peace provided a template for
democratic principles of initiative, recall, referendum, and equal
suffrage. It established the responsibility of governmental officials
to the citizenry and of the present generation to future generations
(James 2010, p.17).”
• In 1952 Felix Cohen wrote: "It is out of a rich Indian democratic
tradition that the distinctive political ideals of American life emerged.
Universal suffrage for women as well as for men, the pattern of states
within a state that we call federalism, the habit of treating chiefs as
servants of the people instead of their masters, the insistence that the
community must respect the diversity of men and the diversity of their
dreams―all these things were part of the American way of life before
Columbus landed." (Cohen, cited in James 2010, p.17)
• The original Iroquois Great Law of Peace was ‘written’ using a belt of
wampum. Bellow is another famous belt of wampum written to
commemorate our undemocratic subjugation of the Iroquois people.
Johann Pestalozzi (1746-1827), "father
of modern educational science," was a
vocal supporter of freedom and
autonomy. Around the time of the
American Revolution he created a
school to engender those qualities in
His theories and work were an
inspiration for John Dewey, the father
of the progressive education
movement. (James 2010)
Horrace Mann (1796-1859)
In the 1840's the Massachusetts
commissioner of education Horace
Mann fiercely advocated for the
founding of a public education
system. At the time there were only
private schools that did not seek to
educate all children equally, but
typically focused on children of the
wealthy or members of a particular
religious community. Mann argued
for universal access to education
for all citizens, subsidized by taxes.
Horrace Mann and the Advent
of Public Education
• Horrace was adamant that public education should become the standard
education for the nation, “not the assortment of private schools driven by
assorted ideologies and economic interests. This argument echoed that of
the Founding Fathers, namely that a democracy relying on the will of the
people needed to be sure that the people were both informed and loyal or
the nation itself would suffer.”(Graham 2005, p.13)
• By the middle of the nineteenth century Mann had integrated his version of
democratic principles into the new public education system he helped
• He felt that participation in the democratic process required acceptance of
certain moral standards, which schools were expected to teach.
Unfortunately these moral principles were limited by the discriminatory
social norms of the time.
John Dewey (1859-1952)
John Dewey was a philosopher,
psychologist and educational
reformer whose ideas have been
influential in education and
democratic social reform.
• Dewey believed that education and learning are essentially social and
interactive endeavors, which makes schools inherently social institutions
where social reform should take place. He recognized schools as a place to
nurture a democratic patriotism in which it is a citizen's responsibility to
serve their country through enlightened criticism of it.
• In addition, he believed that students thrive in an environment where they are
allowed to experience and interact with the curriculum, and all students
should have the opportunity to take part in their own learning. He also
believed that while children must experience democracy to learn
democracy, they need adult guidance to develop into responsible adults.
• He argued that schools had the responsibility to encourage full participation
in our democracy by being places that, through education, dismantled the
barriers of class that have continually kept people from interacting with
each other in ways necessary for a functional and equitable democracy
Albert Shanker (1928-1997)
In the 1970’s a teacher and teacher’s union advocate, Shanker was a famous and
profoundly controversial figure. According to Graham, “He deeply believed that the
public schools had been and must continue to be instruments of democracy, providing
opportunity for all citizens, while at the same time he worked toward building a
strong teachers union committed to active participation in both the national and
international labor movement. These seemed contradictory goals to some onlookers.
(Graham 2002, p.173)”
That these two forms of activism are seen as a contradiction touches the heart of why
democratic education has not been successfully implemented in our public schools,
both teachers and students are not give democratic rights in our socioeconomic
• Racial segregation was one of the major glaring undemocratic practices in US public
education. In1944, the Carnegie Corporation commissioned a team of researchers to
study this issue. They published An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern
Democracy. “They argued eloquently that the "American Creed" held the values of
democracy and fairness to all, but that racial segregation as practiced in the United States
violated the creed's most fundamental tenets.” (Graham 136) This report was largely
ignored in the noise of WWII.
• Desegregation of schools finally began on May 17, 1954 when the Supreme Court ruled, “We
conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no
place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the
plaintiffs . . . are by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal
protection of the laws guaranteed by the FourteenthAmendment.(Graham 2002, p.127)”
• The Civil Rights Act of 1964 permitted the federal government to cut federal funds to schools
that violated this act by remaining segregated.
• Democratic ideal embodied in desegregation was very slow to find its way into our schools.
Twenty years after the Supreme Court ruling Boston had to be desegregated by federal
court order. Today schools are still sharply divided by race and income, though not in
policy, but in practice.
The Changing Tides of
National Education Policy
• The Port Huron statement, initiated by University of Michigan undergraduates, argued that
everyone should participate in the decisions that shaped their lives. It became the
founding document of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1962 and of the
student protest movement in general.” (Graham 2010, p.225)
• The Higher Education Act of 1965, which provided financial aid for undergraduates, was
passed with the partial intention to increase social justice by providing the opportunity
for students from low-income families to get a college education.
• Title I- 1965 was also the year the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also a
mechanism for social justice for younger students, was passed. Title I paid for
“compensatory education” programs for children in low-income areas. Title I was used
to enforce the Civil Rights Act as well as the No Child Left Behind education policy
enacted under president Bush. (Graham 2002)
• Common Core Standards have increased accountability and consistency among states while
trying to ensure a quality education for every student. Though this is a laudable step
towards democratic education, the new Core Curriculum Standards were developed
with a primary focus on preparation for the workforce, not for full and equitable
Sudsbury Valley School
Sudsbury Valley School was founded in Framingham, Massachusetts
in 1968 based on a model of full democratic governance. They have
a School Meeting open to all students, teachers, administrators and
other community members that votes on and manages all aspects of
the school, including staff hiring and facilities. Beginning in the
1980s, several dozen schools opened based on Sudbury Valley.
Modern Democratic Schools
• One of my favorite developmental theorists Lawrence Kohlberg used his
research and theories as a foundation for the development and
implementation a strong democratic education intervention: the Just
Community approach. Put simply, the just community schools take
seriously the democratic ideals of active participation in decision-making
by all, respect for individual rights, and attention to the common good.
The Just Community approach has been successfully implemented in
schools throughout the USA and Europe. (Oser, Althof & HigginsD'Alessandro, 2008)
• Democratic School Movements are increasing, mainly in private and
• Alternative Education Resource Organization
• This organization is dedicated to supporting democratic education,
student decision-making, self-direction and equality.
• Their website has an extensive list of democratic schools in the US.
A Future We Can All Agree On
“We were then  , and remain, hopeful that education can
contribute to a more productive economy and a more equitable
sharing of its benefits and burdens, as well as a society in which all
are maximally free to pursue their own ends unimpeded by
prejudice, the lack of opportunity for learning, or material want.
Our distress at how woefully the U.S. educational system was then
failing these objectives sparked our initial collaboration. The system's
continuing failure has prompted our recent return to the
subject.” (Bowles & Gintis 2003)
Let us take our hope and use it to create an education system that
exemplifies the principles of our democracy.
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