Student Engagement

If They Don’t Practice Democracy, They Won’t Learn It

September 6, 2012
Photo credit: hammersmithandfulham via flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Students should have a significant voice in school-based decision-making in every high school. They rarely do. With the teaching of democracy a stated goal of every high school, I still find this hard to believe.

An Early Experiment in Democracy

We'll get back to this, but first travel back in time with me to the year 1970, and observe a small group of students in a public high school in the process of achieving two goals: (1) the creation of a student-faculty council charged with making policy changes; and (2) two student representatives -- with voting rights -- added to the school's curriculum council. They build a group of allies composed of two members of the school board, the local newspaper editor, the head of the PTA and a few of the most prominent business leaders in the community. The principal receives phone calls from a number of members of this adult alliance. He meets with the students and grants them exactly what they've asked for.

Although I played no part in their actions, I knew all of these students. They had participated in a required Social Studies unit on "Education in America," in which they had learned a lot about the political processes of education. One of the goals of that curriculum was to train students to participate actively and effectively in our political system. These students were smart, mature and, importantly, politically literate.

It's exemplary when politically savvy students work within the system to effectively change a school. But there was one thing wrong with the scenario I described. There already should have been student involvement in the school's decision-making processes, initiated and supported by administration and faculty leaders. The students shouldn't have had to apply pressure to have that happen.

Giving Students a Voice

Arguably, our high schools generally do a good job of achieving their primary purpose of preparing students academically. But very few do a good job of preparing them for their role as active, responsible, informed citizens in a democracy, despite the fact that the teaching of democracy is a stated goal for most schools.

Students require teaching and modeling to fully appreciate the democratic process. This can take place through the curriculum, with Social Studies the most likely location. But on a school-wide level, the primary place to start is by giving students a significant role in school decision-making and policy formation.

There are four critical underlying points:

  1. To effectively teach democracy, you have to model it; and to teach students how to be actively engaged citizens, you have to enable them to practice this.
  2. In a democracy, those most affected by decisions should have a voice in making them. This principle is included in the United Nations' Convention of the Rights of the Child. The U.S. is the only country that has failed to ratify it.
  3. There are many high school students whose insights, perceptiveness and intelligence could make a substantive difference in school reform, helping changes happen faster and more effectively. These include change in curricula, school climate and testing.
  4. Student participation in decision-making improves student outcomes. It makes them more attached to school, builds self-esteem and improves tolerance and appreciation of others. Student participation can also lead to the development of young adults who think that they can make a difference.

Useful Examples

These points are more than philosophy or conjecture. They are based on the research and surveys of research by Dr. Dana Mitre, an Associate Professor at Penn State University. Her book, Student Voice in School Reform: Building Youth-Adult Partnerships That Strengthen Schools and Empower Youth, should be read by all school leaders.

While student views should be secondary to the expertise of teachers and administrators, they should still be an explicit and significant part of every school's decision-making processes. And one of the objectives for every Social Studies program should be to help train students to function effectively in that process.

None of these changes require major restructuring of how a school operates. There are excellent models available. What it takes is an administration that recognizes both the challenge and the need for change.

Every teacher and administrator should review what was accomplished at Federal Hocking High School in Ohio, documented beautifully by George Wood in Time to Learn.

The Harvard Graduate School of Education's Civic and Moral Education Initiative is also a good place to look for those of you who want to become part of the broader effort.

This is not rocket science. It is easy to accomplish and far more about attitude than about procedure. Work with students in your school to take this to the next step. We know that we get the government we deserve and, especially in this election year, it might be good to remember that our schools have a prime responsibility for this.

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  • Student Engagement
  • Curriculum Planning
  • Professional Learning
  • 9-12 High School

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