A Democratic Approach to Public Schools

December 3, 2012

A Country-Wide Problem

When I wrote my book Teaching to the Child, I revealed many problems I saw in the New York City public school system.  Through research and various groups I have joined, I see this issue extends far beyond the five boroughs.  By following Diane Ravitch’s blog, I’ve heard from teachers, parents, and advocates from across the country who are fed up with the public school system.

Way to go Chicago!

It was on this blog that I first learned about Chicago’s democratic approach to education.   Rather than have superintendents hire principals, they experimented with having teachers, parents, and students elect their principals for a term.  If it works for president, why not for our schools?  From my experience, superintendents often don’t know what’s going on in schools, and they hire principals with ulterior motives in mind, while hiding behind the idea of the students’ best interests.  It’s the teachers, parents, and students themselves who know what’s best for the schools.  By having them be responsible for electing the leader of their school, the principal than becomes accountable to those he/she serves, and not to the higher-ups.

A Theory Put to the Test

This sounds great in theory, but what is it like in action?  Well, I was shocked to find that this study began in Chicago in 1991.  Yes, more than 20 years ago.  See their thorough report entitled School Reform Chicago Style here:  http://designsforchange.org/pdfs/SchlRfrmChgoStyle.pdf.  I read through this report with two questions in mind: Did this work?  And if so, why are we focusing on Common Core Learning Standards and the new Danielson model instead of this?


That’s when, through Ms. Ravitch’s blog, I heard success story after success story.  Designs for Change, the same group who put out the above report, followed up just this past February with an updated report.  This new report details with the ever important data, all the success this Democratic model has had:  http://designsforchange.org/democracy_vs_turnarounds.pdf.

Taking What Chicago Has Done to the Next Level

I don’t agree with everything in their model, for example, the elected principal having complete decision-making power.  I believe the system should run much like our presidential system: with a series of checks and balances.  Overall, though, I would love to give this system a try in New York and across the country.  I’m just a teacher and author though.  How can we make this happen?

My next steps are to try to get this going in New York by reaching out to anyone and everyone who will listen.  We can no longer sit idly by while people who don’t care are running our schools into the ground.


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