American Ideal of Democracy in the Education System

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“Through liberty and justice for all!”. Each school day, these words leave the mouths of thousands of children across America. They stand up tall, hand over their hearts, declaring that this nation - our nation - is a place that provides for them, where they have a voice. It is a place of equality that is worthy of each of their undying allegiance. Each of these children pledges their devotion to a democracy, and in return it is expected that the democracy devote itself to them. Unfortunately, these children are often betrayed by the pledge they make. While America strives to provide the promised ‘liberty and justice for all’, it often lets down those very ideals it is meant to uphold. The issue these children face is twofold. On one hand, they are growing and learning in a system that does not operate according to true democratic principles. On the other, they are never instructed on what it means to live in a democracy, and as such can do nothing to improve things for themselves or for future generations. The movement for democratic education aims to change this discrepancy. By implementing policies based upon the six main tenets of democratic education: equality, important knowledge, nature of authority, inclusiveness, participatory decision-making (Knight and Pearl, 2000); schools can transform themselves into the safe places that our nation promises to its children. When put into practice, democratic education becomes service projects, inclusive classrooms, and independent students. By using these principles, a teacher can transform their classroom into a place of true liberty for each and every child.

Democratic Education

Democratic education is a theory founded in American ideals, but its aims extend beyond the national borders. The purpose of the movement is to make students into active citizens not only of their communities, but of the entire world around them. According to the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA), the main goal is as follows: “By supporting the individual development of each young person within a caring community, democratic education helps young people learn about themselves, engage with the world around them, and become positive and contributing members of society” (Bennis, 2010). While the exact names and numbers vary between sources, advocates of democratic education rely on several central ‘pillars’ that must be present in order for democratic education to be effective. These include equality, priority, authority, inclusiveness, and participation.

Equality is the first and most obvious of these tenants. It is the central idea in democracy itself, and as such is absolutely vital when it comes to educating young citizens. In the classroom though, this concept must move beyond a simple idea. While it is quite simple to say ‘we treat all of our students equally’, democratic education requires that a school has specific policies in place to ensure that students have equal opportunity, equal voice, and equal power within the school community. This means that every student must have access to school events, clubs, etc., but also that the school must strive to provide accommodations for any student who may need them. The school must provide for and protect its diverse students through its anti-bullying measures, school lunch programs, and any school-wide rule that may affect its attendees. “Schools should ensure that all children – regardless of their socioeconomic status, gender, race, ethnicity, or religion – receive an education that prepares them to exercise their rights and fulfill responsibilities as citizens” (Gutman and Ben-Porath, 2014).

Priority refers to the importance of certain knowledge when it comes to curriculum. In democratic education, it specifically requires educating students on what democracy is and how to utilize their given rights within one. Taking political sides in the classroom is certainly a horrible thing to do to students, but politics themselves should not be left entirely out of the classroom. While a teacher should remain neutral, the issues that surround the nation and the world should be open for discussion in the classroom. Children need to be informed about their own society – the real truth of their society, not the dumbed-down version that says everything is and will always be alright. This means instilling independent thought and critical thinking skills in students. After all, “the ability to deliberate about political matters is key to a diverse citizenry’s ability to assess democratic education the laws that bind them, to hold their representatives accountable, and to respect one another amidst ongoing disagreement” (Gutman and Ben-Porath, 2014).

“Rights, like all dimensions of democracy, are not to be discovered through Foucaultian archeological digs; rather, they are created by students in interaction with each other with the help of persuasive and negotiable authority” (Knight and Pearl, 2000). The key part of this phrase is ‘persuasive and negotiable’. This is what advocates for democratic education look for in an authority figure. This means teachers, principals, politicians – anyone involved in the shaping of student lives. By necessity, these authority figures must have an open-door policy when it comes to negotiation. They must believe in and fight for children while being open to their ideas. This also requires a certain level of diversity among leaders. Not only do children need representation from those who live in their community and understand their perspectives, but leaders whom they feel they can talk and relate too.

Inclusiveness ties in well to the question of diverse leadership, while also relating back to equality. This, however, extends further beyond direct policy-making. There is a difference between receiving accommodation and being made to feel included. Schools that adhere to democratic education must do both. This can be something as simple as showing different types of people on the classroom posters, or as involved as shifting an entire curriculum. School is a place of learning, but it is also a place of living and a place of feeling. Inclusive schools take this into account and value their students’ emotional development as much as their academics.

The last and possibly most important of the pillars is participation. Every student must have a voice – a loud, determined, and informed voice. “Democratic education sees young people not as passive recipients of knowledge, but rather as active co-creators of their own learning” (Bennis, 2010). Co-creating a school experience goes far beyond the usual ‘student council’ type responsibilities expected of students. Schools need to open up their policies to student input and grant them the responsibility to craft their own community. Teachers can do this as well by allowing students to influence the classroom rules. Students should be taught to speak up about the issues that are important to them and instructors should be required to listen. Everyone having a say, regardless of where they are in any chain of power, is one of the most powerful ideals behind the founding of America, and our educational system should strive for no less than to be the perfect incarnation of those ideals.

Examples in Literature and Experience

Since the movement began, many schools have taken on the task of raising active citizens. The Association for Supervision and Curriculum (ASCD), a non-profit organization composed of educators, superintendents, teachers, and principals from more than one hundred and twenty-eight different countries, is one of the biggest groups of activists when it comes to democratic education. Alongside the First Amendment Center, the organization began the First Amendment Schools Initiative. This program offered grants to schools that would take on a democratic education program, as well as offering resources, sample school policies, lesson plans, and classes for teachers. Ashby, the principal of one of these recipient schools, explained their new policies: “I realized I had been running a benign dictatorship. Part of this project's purpose is to teach students how to participate in a democracy by letting them participate”. Students at Ashby’s school were both allowed and encouraged to petition for school policy changes, joined a review board alongside parents to discuss the school’s uniform policy, and run their own newspaper reporting on community issues and developing plans on what the school itself can do to help (Delisio, 2011).

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I myself attended a high school that based much of its policy on the concept of democratic education. James Madison Preparatory School, a charter high school in Tempe, Arizona, prides itself on constructing an environment that allows student expression and input, while training them to become great citizens. Oddly enough, the school has a rather strict ‘business-casual’ dress code, despite dress codes being a highly controversial point in the debate of school policy versus student expression. Their reasoning behind it though is rooted in a desire to prepare students for the wider world, as the policy is meant to instruct students on how to make a good impression in a working environment. The school takes time every day to have whole-school assemblies where teachers prepare presentations on everything from broad concepts of character to interesting facts to current events. Students are allowed to present as well, and seniors at the school are required to do so at least once on a topic of their choice. The school policies in and of themselves are also open to student input, though the faculty reserves the right to ‘veto’ a bill (to their credit, I did not witness a faculty ‘veto’ in my four years there). The first two days of school are dedicated entirely to allowing students to draft ‘bills’ for programs they would like, clubs, dances, service projects, etc., which are voted on by the entire student body and reviewed by elected representatives from each homeroom. Students also had access to a court (composed of fellow students) before which students who were written up would appear and either admit that they broke the rules and accept their punishment or challenge the allegations against them. While the school’s security cameras would sometimes reveal that the student was lying (resulting in harsher punishment, usually community service), the student had the opportunity to fight accusations they felt were unfair, and it was entirely possible that one the student’s side was heard that they would win their case.

Probably the most impactful motion that the school made in line with their democratic education philosophy was allowing the students to draft the school constitution. This they trusted entirely to the students, and this document was binding school policy that would affect the school and community for as long as it was open. They wanted the students to help them build the kind of school they wanted to attend, and it turned out to be an excellent and influential plan. I do believe that my experience with this school changed my life. The school did lack in diverse representation, as its small (about 100 high school students) body consisted mostly of white, suburban dwelling children due to its location. While it did go to an extreme with its democratic policies, James Madison Preparatory School could easily serve as a model for a more inclusive, democratic, and equitable school system.

Classroom Application

In accordance with this theory, my future classroom will be directly influenced by the students within it. I will begin with the first day, focusing heavily on equality and inclusiveness. I will make it clear to my students that this classroom is a safe place for them, where they are welcome to share their passions, their opinions, and their experiences. More importantly, I will make that clear by maintaining this attitude and offering a listening ear throughout the school year. I will have the students construct their own list of school rules for the classroom. I will ask them for their ideas and input, write down the suggested rules on the board (if a rule that a student suggests goes against school policy, I will take the time to explain to them why that policy is in place and why we cannot use the rule), and then have the students vote on which rules should be implemented in the classroom.

Students will be allowed and encouraged to talk about problems going on in the community. In fact, I will likely hold class meetings in the morning where students can bring up and freely talk about issues affecting their lives. When something is brought up, I will then open the floor to suggestions as to what we as a class can do to help. Assignments, school-specific issues, class specific issues, and even my own lessons and teaching methods will all be open for discussion during this time as well. These ten-to-fifteen-minute meetings will hopefully not only make students feel like they are included and have power within the room, but also create a sense of unrivalled classroom community. My main concern with this idea is that these sorts of open discussions will become isolated to ‘meeting times’, but I will try to make it clear that I am always there to listen and will work with students whenever I am free.

In lesson plans themselves, I promise to constantly analyze my class for understanding and comprehension, and to be flexible with my teaching styles and with my topics. If there is something the students have taken particular interest in, I will do my best to integrate it into the curriculum. I will offer reflections on units and projects, allowing students to evaluate me as a teacher, along with evaluating themselves and how they believe they performed during the lesson.

My class could have bi-weekly or monthly service projects that are chosen by the students. Not only could this be used as a launching point to talk about community and society, but it encourages children to look into their own community and learn about the needs of those around them. It has also been proven that students have higher motivation to complete projects that they have a part in designing. If the class size is small enough, I could have each student come up with a way to help the community. If it is too large, perhaps they could work in pairs. I have also considered offering prizes for helping others, but I have some reservations about this since I do not want to alienate children who have fewer opportunities to ‘help out’ outside of school and I do not want to turn service into a purely external motivation.

When it comes to discipline in my classroom, I do want to offer children the opportunity to give their side of the issue and have some input into what their punishment will be. When a student misbehaves to the point of having to punish them, I will write down specifically which rule they broke and why it was unsafe or inconsiderate behavior. I will have the student come and talk to me for a moment during free time and allow them to share their side of what happened and encouraging them to be honest. I will have a list of consequences for misbehavior and allow the child to choose which one they wish to accept. This allows children to have their own agency even within the realm of discipline. I will make it clear that I still love and respect the student, and am open to hearing their perspective even if it doesn’t absolve them of their misbehavior. I want my students to feel cared for, respected, and in control of their own education.


Democratic education offers a turning point for the American education system. It shifts the focus of teaching from an instructor dispensing information like a vending machine to an actively engaged and student-centered one. At this moment, the daily pledge that students make to their country simply isn’t a true claim. Yet it could be, and those who advocate for a more democratic system of education are striving to make it so. As future teachers, it is vital that we consider our students. We must fight in our schools for equality, dispense truth and important knowledge, examine our own biases and make ourselves into reliable authority figures, strive to make each child feel included, and accept their ideas and listen to their stories. Only when every teacher works toward these goals can our nation’s education system truly represent the democracy that America’s greatest idealists long for it to be. When we as a society respect our students and teach them to be active citizens, they will go on to truly achieve liberty and justice for all.

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