Democratic Learning, With a Little D

As the battle lines continue to be drawn with regard to the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), some continue to remind us that the discussion is more complex than it seems.  K-12 isn’t just about student achievement on math and reading exams, they contend, and true education improvement is about more than just accountability.

One such voice is Sam Chaltain, the national director of the Forum for Education and Democracy.  Reflecting on his past experiences as both a classroom educator and the founding director of the Five Freedoms Project, Chaltain recently released a new book offering a bit of a different framework for classroom instruction.  American Schools: The Art of Creating a Democratic Learning Community serves as that call to arms.

Often, we see these sorts of books chock full of ideas, but with little practice or real life to back it up.  In American Schools, Chaltain offers up both the theory behind his reccs and specific practice where those ideas have already taken hold.  The theory is based on five basics organizational points — reflect, connect, create, equip, and let come.  He then offers some real classroom experiences in California, South Carolina, and New Hampshire where those common theoretical words are put to practice.

Over the weekend, The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss looked at American Schools vis-a-vis survey data on the Pledge of Allegiance and how well we are preparing our students to be productive citizens.  Such a discussion line becomes particularly interesting when we reflect on some of the proposed education budget “consolidations” being proposed this year, including specific programs focusing on civics and U.S. history. 

At a time when closing the achievement gap and boosting student achievement across the board is the name of the game, is there room in the debate for a more holistic look at K-12 education and an emphasis on the qualitative measures of classroom education?  Time will tell.  As budgets continued to get stretched and we continue to demand more and more of our classroom educators and our school leaders, it becomes harder and harder to add teaching democracy skills to the list of performance measures we expect to see coming out of our public schools.  But as we begin focusing on what it means to be “college and career ready,” perhaps it is a line of discussion we should be having as we talk about the knowledge and skills all students should possess to contribute to their community.

Regardless, some of the case studies, rubrics, and examples that Chaltain offers up in American Schools are worth a read (and may be worth showing to folks like U.S. Senators Lamar Alexander and Robert Byrd to remind then of the role civics and history can play in ESEA reauthorization). 

And for those in Washington, DC looking to engage Chaltain on the concept, he’ll be over at Busboys and Poets at 14th and V Streets NW in the District tonight at 6:30 p.m. to discuss the democratic learning premise.  Eduflack is sure Sam would be up for a good ole debate on the topic.

101 thoughts on “Democratic Learning, With a Little D

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