Democratic Education: Look for Progressive Schools’ Missing Link in Neighborhood Schools

What you need to understand is in our culture, when there’s not enough, we don’t quit, and we don’t close…When our children’s book bags are underutilized, we don’t kick them out, we fill them up. When there’s not enough potatoes, you don’t stop cooking dinner. When there is not enough gas, you don’t give away your car. Goldblatt is not an underutilized building. I’ll say it again: Goldblatt is not an underutilized building. It’s a greatly-utilized school. Don’t get schooling mixed up with the building…If you want to see progress, you got to keep our schools open.

— Marcus Brady, Goldblatt School Security Officer

 Unless local communal life can be restored, the public cannot adequately resolve its most urgent problem: to find out and identify itself…For it will be alive and flexible as well as stable, responsive to the complex and world-wide scene in which it is enmeshed.  While local, it will not be isolated.  Its larger relationships will provide an inexhaustible and flowing fund of meanings.

–John Dewey, The Public and its Problems

When Public Education is Under Attack, What Do We Do? STAND UP, FIGHT BACK! This   protest chant illuminates an important source of democratic education that have been left too long untapped by progressive education practice: struggle in community.  This value is at the heart of John Dewey’s writing on education, but its relevance to the progressive education that developed out of Dewey’s work has not been developed, because the people carrying out struggle in community were by and large not in progressive schools.  The fight for public education in Chicago challenges the progressive education community to decide whether democratic education matters enough to join in the struggle in community.

Recent analyses have focused on political implications of the fight over school closings at both local and global levels, exemplifying the kind of critical thinking schools should be nurturing in students.  But the school closings controversy also brought to the wider public voices in the community that teach us precisely the practices that we urgently need for democratic society today.  Coming from a progressive school context, I am interested in the meaning of struggle in community for progressive education.

In the Chicago Public School Board’s “community engagement” process over the past several months, community members spoke to the meaning of the school as a community.   Students, parents, faculty and administrators and staff across Chicago neighborhoods and schools all describe school as a place of belonging, continuity, trust, and safety.  They describe the nexus of relationships at the school: the school is a space where families come together with one another and with other families, in peace and hope.  Children find the protection and affirmation that they need to grow.  Adults find resources and encouragement for employment, health, and financial and reading literacy.  These are real-world supports that schools offer — and that the school closings now jeopardize.

Thousands of Chicagoans of every age, class, and race have been explaining to the Board of Education that school is not just an appendage of the state.  That it is not just a building in which to warehouse, test, and sort children.  That education is a broader field than academic progress — and that the measures by which they are considering academic progress are deeply flawed, with little correspondence to people’s actual strengths, nor to the capacities that are actually demanded by today’s world.  That investing in the economic, social, and physical health of the neighborhoods will improve education more surely than any strategy propagated by Central Office.

Community members’ testimonials describe exactly the kind of schools that the great education philosopher John Dewey proposed for America: community schools.  Dewey saw the school as the living source of democratic society: the closer its connections with the community, the stronger the learning that happened in it.  At the same time, he was clear that education viewed only in terms of academic growth is both rationally incorrect and socially dangerous. In “The School as a Social Centre,” he writes,

The intellectual life, facts, and truths of knowledge, are much more obviously and intimately connected with all other affairs of life than they ever have been at any previous period in the history of the world.  Hence a purely and exclusively intellectual instruction means less than it ever meant before. And, again, the daily occupations and ordinary surroundings of life are much more in need of interpretation than ever they have been before.

Education for today’s world requires breaking down the boundaries between academic learning and the challenges and opportunities of real life.  Over and over again, community members of scores of schools like Lafayette, Jackson, and Stockton, point to the community partnerships that enrich children’s education, like HEART, Merit, and multiple museum partnerships — that the school closings kill.  “Community” is not just being nice to each other and collaborating.  It lives in diverse relationships and in respect for the many parts of the learner — the musical learner, the ethical learner — parts which the School Board doesn’t recognize.

What does all this have to do with progressive education?  Progressive education philosophers knew that community didn’t just exist; it had to be fought for.  As Benson, Puckett, and Harkavy argue, however, in Dewey’s Dream, Dewey betrayed “the dream” of democratic education by shrinking from the battles that sustaining such a model required.  After founding his Laboratory School, he left Chicago and withdrew into philosophy that was removed from struggles surrounding real-life schools in cities like Chicago.  This left progressive schools to develop to spectacular success one dimension of Dewey’s philosophy, child-centered pedagogy — while leaving undeveloped the social implications of his philosophy.

Progressive education is anemic without struggle in community.  Dewey explained better than anyone how schools could and should be the vehicle for social transformation.  “The educational end and the ultimate test of value of what is learned is its use and application in carrying on and improving the common life of all,” he wrote.  Dewey saw schools as the place where people came together across diverse backgrounds, and co-created “the common life.” This necessarily included intelligently standing up to the powers that threatened the common life: “Obviously a society, to which stratification into separate classes would be fatal, must see to it that intellectual opportunities are accessible to all on equable and easy terms. A society marked off into classes need be specially attentive only to the education of its ruling elements.”

Writers and thinkers from Dewey’s contemporary George Counts to present-day philosopher Maxine Greene have lamented Progressive Education’s failure to take on the fight for the democratic work of the schools that Dewey envisioned. In “Dare the School Build a New Social Order,” Counts writes,

If Progressive Education is to be genuinely progressive, it must emancipate itself from the influence of this class, face squarely and courageously every social issue, come to grips with life in all its stark reality, develop a realistic and comprehensive theory of welfare, fashion a compelling and challenging vision of human destiny, and become less frightened…Progressive Education cannot place its trust in a child-centered school.

Counts, along with other progressive philosophers, seeks to change the paradigm of education.  Schools, according to this paradigm, are not for preparing young people for success in the real world.  Schools are for changing the world.

Progressive education has not made much progress on this goal in its 100+ year history.

But community schools have.  Built up by people in the neighborhoods separated from the schools Dewey founded, community schools offer wrap-around supports for the improvement of the neighborhoods.   They grow community. 

Dewey said, “Democracy must begin at home, and its home is the neighborly community,” but he didn’t know how to actualize the neighborly community.  People in the neighborhoods did, and do.  They repeat over and over again that the measures that CPS uses are don’t fit the real work the schools are doing to strengthen communities, that these measures are limited, low, and ignorant.  As Andre Perry explains,

When we remove our eyes from the higher standard of community, we don’t see the intersectionality of community problems. When you’re community focused, you can’t be vigorous about school reform without being spirited about prison reform…When we have faith in community, we can never believe in a theory of improvement by deletion. Community members don’t go away. They may be literally locked away in jail and prison, but people are still here.

The people closing the schools (many of whom, of course, send their children to progressive schools like Dewey’s Laboratory School) are viewing public schools in a narrow and anti-progressive light.  Meanwhile, the people in the neighborhood schools are growing the potential of schools for furthering social change.  They know how to strengthen the school’s function as a social anchor of the community.

The people in the neighborhoods fighting together for their schools have been fleshing out the democratic implications of progressive education, which have been largely missing from progressive schools.   Their teachings offer a vital resource for a society struggling for democratic community.  The Chicago Public Schools Board didn’t listen: they summarily closed 50 schools yesterday.  I wonder if people in progressive schools can listen better — to foster democratic education in solidarity with our public schools communities, and STAND UP, FIGHT BACK!

Making Learning Public – a look at teachers’ testimony in School Board meetings

In my first month of teaching at Parker, my mentor teacher told me, “you’ve got to get outside of the classroom.  The great projects, discussions, and thinking that happen in your class are of very limited value if you aren’t always testing things out in larger contexts.”  My normally jovial and gentle mentor teacher got very serious – he made it clear that it was a responsibility of educators to make learning public.

This went beyond collaborative learning; the social learning he was talking about involves breaking down the barriers between teaching and learning.  He was talking about students presenting their work to a larger community, about the circulation of teaching methods beyond the department, beyond the school, and all with the consciousness of learning connecting with what was going on in the world.

My mentor’s advice helped me to broaden my conception of where learning happens, and start to imagine how place could interact with, catalyze, or transform learning.  In teacher education classes, I propagate my mentor’s advice by assigning students “experiential education events,” where they witness or participate in local public events focused on education.  In this way, they are developing critical questions about perceptions and treatment of teachers, and developing a metacognitive awareness about their work as educators.

The “experiential education events” tend to sharpen my students’ awareness about power, decision-making, and representation.  Whether they are attending a school board meeting or an education conference, attending and reflecting on these events often sharpens and widens the perspective of the pre-service teachers, getting them thinking about dimensions of teaching that they hadn’t previously given much thought to.  They quickly see that public education doesn’t just mean publicly funded: public means struggling for dignity and justice.  They see that it is impossible to educate effectively without a constant eye on what’s happening outside of the classroom, the bigger picture.

One of the experiential event options is attending a school board meeting in Chicago or in Evanston.  Here, the teachers-to-be encounter questions of education policy up-close.  Though Chicago and Evanston are very different educational climates, in both they see right away a profound disconnect between the Board members on the one hand, and the teachers and students on the other.

Maria attended a Chicago school board meeting, and was struck by the distance between the policy makers and the teachers who are charged with enacting the policy.

 I thought that several teachers had pointed out an important idea: although the CPS school board is trying to implement new strategies for change, these strategies are highly abstract and theoretical. We do not know how these theories will transpire when they are practically executed. One teacher stated bluntly “I don’t understand your fancy charts, I just want to know what you will do to change things.” There is an obvious breakdown in communication between teachers, parents, and the school board. I could see the brimming frustration of conflicting ideas between teachers and parents, teachers and the school board, and parents and the school board.

Sitting there in that chamber room, it suddenly seemed apparent to me that power structures shape our perceptions and our decisions. The CPS school board seems to operate on a top-down hierarchy in which policies and assessment criteria are prescribed by a small group of policy makers. Yet these policy makers produce their results through theoretical analysis, which often is disconnected from how a school actually operates on a daily basis. In gaining such insights into the education system, I have slightly altered my goals as a teacher. In my first paper, I described how I aimed to engage students and foster intellectual curiosity in the classroom. This goal still remains, but I am adding an additional component to it: I would like to engage the administration in cultivating a similar curiosity in its schools and students. I have no doubt that the members of the CPS school board are invested in the students’ interests, but I hope to engage the policy makers to refine their understanding of the dynamics of student learning and performance. 

Attending one school board meeting has led Maria to see beyond the borders of her classroom to the “chamber room” of decision-making.  She is beginning to shape a call that she intends to put forth as a teacher, a call to education policy makers to practice the principal work of education: inquiry.  Educators know that policies imposed without careful study of the people who will be carrying out these policies are educationally unsound.   If the School Board were to follow Maria’s lead and demonstrate “curiosity in its schools and students,” it would be making learning public.

In her reflection on a school board meeting a few miles north in Evanston, Tamara writes,

I witnessed firsthand how much being a good teacher should extend outside the classroom. More than just planning and teaching lessons, it’s about being an advocate for your students, acknowledging their achievements, trying to improve the structure of the school and curricula, and encouraging them to use their voice in their education. Many of the students in the audience were there for the first item of the agenda: awards. The school board recognized the winners and finalists of National Merit Scholarships, National Achievement Honors, and National Hispanic Scholars by having their own teachers give personalized speeches. However, those same teachers who presented awards at the beginning of the meeting, along with others, spoke out in favor of the proposed change in the structure of the freshman year. As one teacher read aloud their letter to the administration, a group of at least ten teachers stood behind her in silent support. Other teachers attended as sponsors for the school’s new MSAN (Minority Student Achievement Network) club, who spoke for themselves about how they wanted to help combat the achievement gap in their district.

In the same space and at the same event, at one moment the teachers are representing the school, at the next moment they are challenging its policies.  At this meeting, teachers are drawing attention to the frame of their work.  They show that education in a democracy involves an agility often lacking in political processes.  They show independent thinking in neither accepting nor rejecting Board proposals out of hand but considering each matter separately.  Such teachers model for students a metacognitive stance as they consider and organize around the conditions of learning.

Tamara continues,

The scene that had the greatest effect on me occurred [when a] board member demanded that the Principal ‘control [his] staff!’ Every teacher (the majority of the audience) walked out of the meeting in protest against the implication that they had less of a right to speak than or should be kept under control by authority.

Through their words and their silence and their bodies, the teachers at this school board meeting expressed a small slice of the vast range of response teachers use to sustain one another in their work.  Teachers standing up for themselves and for one another sets an example for their students and for the whole community: they will not tolerate disrespect.

By bearing witness to the contrast between the practices of public policy makers and those of public educators, our new teachers are preparing themselves to make learning public.  They are ready for the struggle that education for democracy will demand of them — and for the powerful community of practice that sustains and strengthens America’s teachers.