Bringing “Democratic Education” to Public Schools

Dating back to the ideas of John Locke, one of the founders of America’s democratic ideology, democratic education is the idea that students should be equal to their superiors in making decisions involving their education. Implicitly, this makes sense — a student has to attend school, therefore — shouldn’t they have a say in it? Similar to the events of the Vietnam War, the draft, and the passage of the 26th amendment — or even our country’s founding — doesn’t everyone deserve representation for things they have to do?

The Free School Movement started to nationalize these schools in the 1960s, and today hundreds of pure democratic schools exist. Two fundamental principles are considered a requirement by the International Democratic Education Conference:

  • Self-determination: being able to seek out what you want to do, people control their own lives.
  • Democratic governance: everyone has an equal vote for decisions made.

To a traditional educator (and honestly, to many progressive ones), democratic schools can seem horrifying. Not only do students come up with every single rule — they also make funding decisions, choose the curricula, and decide whether or not certain staff members stay on next year. Now, I would not propose that every single school in the United States adopts these principles — that would be unrealistic and an overwhelming change to the bureaucratic system we have. However, even though this may seem infeasible or daunting for the public sector, think about what this implies:

If students were in charge, many staff members would lose their jobs.Obviously, if students vote — then some teachers (and administrators) are leaving. So if we know this, doesn’t this mean that students have poor teachers? I’m sure an argument could suffice that certain teachers are more “strict” and therefore students don’t like them. They would “get outcomes” according to administration or their peers. However, I would easily make the argument this is not a good example of teaching. There is a core difference between demanding respect and being authoritarian. It doesn’t take screaming, brash detention assignments, or an unapproachable demeanor to have students listen in class or to obtain high standardized test scores.

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The curriculum would have “fun” classes, and traditional core subjects would be cut and/or diminished. Why would I ever take Algebra 2 when I could take Video Games 101!? Of course, this assumes a lot about what teenagers want to learn to do. It’s true, the majority of students don’t enjoy their Algebra 2 class. Probably because it’s a rote demonstration of outdated and unrealistic practice for the majority of them. However, take any informal poll of students about what they want to learn. The majority will not instantly say something they already do for fun. They will mention personal finance, robotics, coding, graphic design, music production, mechanical engineering, and more. In fact, all it takes is a look at any democratic school’s curriculum to see these classes exemplified. And, of course, there are a few video game classes. Why should we compartmentalize learning? You can learn a lot from video games: creative writing, logistical coding, teamwork, creativity, and more — and note, I’m not talking about “edutainment games.”

Standardized testing would be eliminated. Even though it’s seen as needed for college, I would imagine that if every school were democratic tomorrow, there would be no more standardized tests. Especially state standardized testing to pass high school. Why? Because it’s torturous for any high schooler. It’s long, arduous, not a measure of anything they will use in real life, only values one method of learning (and response), and rarely has any indicator of success later in life. Any teacher has heard the phrase, “Why do we need to take these tests?” and the easiest response?: “Because you have to.”

There are evidently many more changes that would happen. Again, I’m not arguing that we need to make every school democratic tomorrow. However, I am stating if we know all of these things are a problem — and if we put students in charge (who are the ENTIRE point of education) that these things would change — then why aren’t we working to change them? Are we scared? Do we see it as impossible? Why not take a vote of your students or children tomorrow and see what they think? They may have a lot more to share and learn from than you’d imagine.