A Copernican Revolution Needed for Democratic School Reform

In the last installment of our Education Week blog conversation on democracy and schools, Deborah Meier gave a remarkable account of school change efforts in the last two decades, "Democratic Experiments." She is worth quoting at length:

"In the early 1990s...some 100 plus K-12 schools in NYC proposed a large-scale experiment, serving about 50,000 students and representative of the city as a whole. Our aim: to demonstrate the value of greater school/community-based autonomy including show-casing alternative systems of accountability. Annenberg offered us 50 million dollars to try it out. The mayor, NYC chancellor, NYC board of education, the state superintendent of schools, and the American Federation of Teachers local chapter signed on. Two local universities agreed to study our work over five years both statistically and ethnographically. If we hadn't been stopped by a new chancellor and a new state superintendent we'd have learned a lot."

Meier also describes smaller but still significant efforts like "Boston's Pilot" schools and the "Consortium" of schools in New York City, both of which have used alternative assessments, have generally proven successful, and have been largely ignored by policy makers.

The question is how to respond.

It seems to me that the fact the chancellor and state superintendent could end of the "large scale experiment" in the early 1990s despite the broad coalition involved in planning it, shows why we need to rethink politics on a large scale.

Politics has become narrowly professionalized, detached from "civic roots" in the life of local communities. It now almost entirely revolves around politicians (and other public figures), their antics, promises, and positions. Like many other experts, they are detached, especially at state and national levels and in federal agencies. Citizens are reduced to consumer choices. This makes for dysfunctional politics and powerless and irresponsible citizens.

I had a different experience as a young man in the civil rights movement. Black beauty parlors and barber shops were places where people learned "everyday politics." As Sara Evans and I describe in our book, Free Spaces: The Sources of Democratic Change in America, I saw how this learning could be deepened. Highlander Folk School worked with beauticians across the south to teach organizing skills.

One story with parallels from our years at the Humphrey Institute is about the late Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Humphrey described in his autobiography, The Education of a Public Man, how his father went about making his drug store in Doland, a small town in South Dakota, a civic center of the town. His father was one of six Democrats in a town of six hundred Republicans. "In his store there was eager talk about politics, town affairs, and religion," Humphrey wrote. "I've listened to some of the great parliamentary debates of our time, but have seldom heard better discussions of basic issues than I did as a boy standing on a wooden platform behind the soda fountain."

Here and there in recent years we've seen large scale educational experiments out of community organizing like Deborah Meier and her colleagues developed in New York. For instance, the Alliance Schools in Texas, described in Dennis Shirley's Valley Interfaith and School Reform, organized by an Industrial Areas Foundation affiliate with churches, unions and others, developed large scale efforts to redesign schools. It had similarities to Meier's story - more local autonomy, parent and student voice, democratic purpose. It sought to hold politicians accountable.

But like most other community organizing initiatives, it didn't undertake organizing to make democratic change within schools or the teaching profession - or electoral politics.

If we see organizing as "citizen politics," the practices of diverse people negotiating differences, working together for some common good, and developing political skills in the process, it can be taken into professions, schools, colleges -- and also electoral politics and government.

All his life Humphrey was a "different kind of politician" as a result of his father's drug store. He was able to find common ground with Republicans. He was expansive in his vision - he gave the famous civil rights speech at the 1948 Democratic convention, birthed the Peace Corps, led the Senate fight for desegregation. He also challenged everyday citizens to get involved.

Parties, ideologies, and professional politicians all have a role but they shouldn't be at the center of the political universe. Citizens - and civic settings where people of different interests interact and learn citizen politics - need to be at the center.

It will take a Copernican Revolution in our political thinking to bring this about.

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