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Classroom Democracy

Giving Americans the education they deserve

Thomas Jefferson spelled it out for us. “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free,” he wrote, “it expects what never was and never will be.” How well our educational system has lived up to the democratic ideals implicit in that statement is not always clear. Let’s look at progress to date.

The twentieth century’s push for a more scientific approach to schooling gave us much that was positive, but it also gave us standardized testing, which led to unfair tracking of minority children. Educators were not especially concerned about accommodating children from diverse cultural backgrounds. Rather, they focused on defining the “best” education, inadvertently excluding a great many students. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the writings of Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago and a leading educator during the 1930s and 1940s. He wrote, “The best education for the best is the best education for all”—by which he meant the kind of liberal arts education typically reserved for the privileged.

Yet throughout our history of undemocratic education, democratic principles have remained a persistent force for reform. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled racial segregation unconstitutional, and in 1975, Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which brought children with disabilities into the mainstream. Today, the emphasis in educational theory is on multiculturalism, as evidenced by the widespread influence of scholarship seeking to uncover and support the strengths of minority students.

Thinking on the more nitty-gritty issue of school governance has undergone a similar evolution. Early in the last century, the educational philosopher John Dewey gave us a vision of a classroom in which students work together on projects that interest them, with teachers who exercise authority on “behalf of the . . . group, not as an exhibition of personal power.” Yet by the 1970s and 1980s, the dominant theme in discussions of classroom management was taking back control from students. Behaviorist approaches, such as “assertive discipline” were prevalent.

Interestingly, however, we began to see groundbreaking experiments in democratic education around the same time. For example, in the 1970s Lawrence Kohlberg, of Harvard University, helped establish “cluster” schools, in which students and teachers debated weighty matters such as drug use, stealing, cheating, and class attendance. Those talks led to reasonable policies, and students got better at participating in democratically run forums.

Although the experiment ended after Kohlberg died in 1987, the ideas behind it endured. Kohlberg’s work contributed to the founding of the Association for Moral Education, through which education leaders share ideas for making schools more democratic.

The convergence of all these factors—the legal developments in the past half-century, the commitment to accommodating diverse groups of children, and the movement toward less authoritarian classroom management—means that we now have the conditions in place to support truly democratic education. The problem is simply one of rising to the challenge. As the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget once said, “The heartbreaking difficulty in pedagogy . . . is the fact that the best methods are also the most difficult ones.”

Fortunately, we have educators like Marion Reynolds, former director of Tufts’ elementary education certification program, to show us the way. I used to observe Marion’s first-grade class. One day, her class descended into chaos at meeting time. I expected her to lay down the law. Instead, she said “We’ve fallen apart. What are we going to do?”

One child suggested they all be sent to time-out. Marion said she couldn’t do that because if she did, there would be no meeting. Another child suggested she hire more teachers to keep the children under control. Marion said the school didn’t have the money. Eventually the children, with Marion’s gentle prodding, generated their own rules for behavior—rules like “Raise hands before talking” and “Sit only in your own space.” Marion recorded them on a large sheet of paper, and they became a kind of class constitution. It was an inspiring performance.

And, it worked. The children followed the rules because, having made them themselves, they owned them.

W. GEORGE SCARLETT is deputy chair of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development and lead author of Approaches to Behavior and Classroom Management: Integrating Discipline with Care (Sage, 2009).

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