Saving Democracy by Living It: A Democratic Nation Needs A Democratic and Public Education System

How do we save our democracy? Or, how do we create a truly democratic nation? We are learning, now, that too many people in the U. S. either never understood or never cared about democracy. Or they had become complacent and hopefully now realize what they might lose. So, how do we change the state of our government?

 

A democracy is a government of, by, and for the people ⎼all the people. The power rests in the citizens, who exercise that power according to laws and principles set out in a constitution that all know and have access to. Each person must be valued, and each person’s viewpoint heard.

 

To do that, the government needs to foster a sense of community. Caring relationships and a sense of shared humanity must be at the core of the process by which decisions are made. How we live our lives schools us in how to participate, with everyone around us, in the work of running a government together.

 

We need to make political action a normal part of our daily lives.

 

Without this depth of understanding, it is too easy to give up on democracy when it becomes difficult. It is too easy to sacrifice participating in the rewarding but complex process of making decisions with others in exchange for letting someone else do it for us. It is too easy to get so focused on what we think is the only answer that we forget everyone else can also think their answer is the only one. Compromise becomes impossible. Those who differ from us become enemies.

 

It is also important to study history, to understand what happens to the rights and well-being of citizens under other forms of government, like Fascism or Dictatorship, and what happens when a democracy is destroyed.

 

For all these reasons, a democratic nation needs a democratic and public education system. Our schools need to model the quality of relationships we want in society in general. Democracy and forming caring relationships must be at the core of the school curriculum and of how a school functions.

 

A Democratic and Public Education

 

This understanding is at the heart of a book by Dr. Dave Lehman, A Principal’s Notebook: Lessons for Today from a Pioneering Public School. His book describes the educational structure of the Lehman Alternative Community School (LACS) in Ithaca, New York (a school that he founded ⎼ and where I taught for 27 years). It provides a pedagogy of democratic schooling and of relationships—students with peers, students with staff, staff with colleagues, and everyone with the material being taught and the world we live in.

 

Democracy can’t be taught just through research and reasoning, certainly not by testing the memorization of data. It requires experience and practice. It has to be lived.

 

In order to realistically learn how to relate in a caring, cooperative, and educational manner—and make decisions democratically—children need a structure that prioritizes and develops healthy, caring relationships. Especially in today’s world, marred by increasing hatred and divisiveness in our government and anxiety in our children, where young people often spend more time with digital media than they do with breathing beings, this fact has never been clearer.

 

As Dr. Dave describes in his book, at LACS “everyone has a voice, and a vote, from the newest sixth grader to the oldest high schooler, from the most recently hired teaching assistant to the most experienced teacher and the Principal.” Most decisions concerning everyone at the school are made democratically, either by a weekly all-school meeting, or weekly staff meeting. Staff makes most decisions consensually.

 

To help the school function, there are committees that meet twice a week. The committees maintain the school building and recycle. They plan and run meetings, mediate disputes, support LGBTQ and students of color, develop an overview of where the school is in terms of its goals and where it would like to go, to plant and care for trees and flowers, etc.

 

And everyone has their own family group at the school to support them, consisting of one or usually two staff and about 14 students. In this way, a real community is created. Students learn the need to take responsibility for their surroundings and to speak up for what they think is right, while respecting another people’s right to do the same.

 

Courses are sometimes formed at the recommendation of students, or they are structured to meet the interests, needs and questions raised by students. Students choose their courses instead of having all their classes mandated for them. They are assessed not primarily by standardized tests but through projects and demonstrations of skill that they have a part in designing.

 

The school is far from perfect. But it seriously tries to provide a supportive situation so each student, teacher, and administrator can do their best and find themselves in their work.

 

LACS is only one of several democratic public schools in our nation today. In fact, in New York a statewide group, the DemocracyReady NY Coalition, was launched just last February to “secure the right of all New York students to a quality P-12 education that prepares them for civic participation.”

 

A democratic government needs a citizenry that can not only research and think critically about issues and candidates but values caring relationships. It requires not only democracy in schools but of schools, so there is a quality public education open to everyone.

 

We pay an exorbitant price when the central importance of relationships and taking responsibility for one’s learning is lost. Not only the quality of education suffers, but also the community of our nation suffers. The Lehman Alternative Community School and other democratic schools throughout the nation (and world) provide not only a guide and model for developing good schools but for developing a healthy and democratic nation.

 

Of course, democratizing schools is a longer-term strategy. In the short term, we need to vote or impeach T out of office or we the people might lose the chance to democratize anything.

 

**This post has been syndicated by The Good Men Project.

 

Relieving Student Apathy: Apathy Is A Symptom of Greater Societal Problems

Recently, I read a discussion on a FB page for educators and social action (the Bad Ass Teachers) that hit home for me. The discussion was about the omnipresence of student apathy and the expectation that teachers were responsible for entertaining and freeing students from this curse. I remembered this exact feeling from 20-30 years ago. Not only did I have to shape lessons to fit a wide variety of student ability levels and interests. I felt I had to be as clever and exciting as the tv or movies they were used to watching. (There were no or few cell phones then.)

The situation has become even worse today. One teacher-author, who had written a post about the situation, spoke about teachers being expected to “be all things to all people” and students have become “consumer learners.” She described a workshop where she was encouraged to design her teaching to be like a video game. How else could she expect to hold student attention? She questioned if a video game is the best model for how to shape a lesson. 

Teachers face a long list of problems every day the corporate and media attacks on public education, the detrimental effects of standardized testing, the tremendous inequality in school resources and funding, the poverty, homelessness and increasing anxiety and depressionexperienced both by young people and adults, etc..  And, of course, let’s add the addiction to drugs or digital devices. But should we also add apathy to this list?

Student apathy is not the main problem. It is but a symptom of all the problems listed above all of which can reach deeply into a child’s psyche. Many students can’t find the motivation to engage in their own education because they can’t find themselves. They don’t see themselves in their own lives or are afraid, or too traumatized, to do so.

They have been taught to think their emotions come from someone or somewhere else, not themselves. When they feel anger, they think the object of the anger is the cause of it. Or they experience love or jealousy and feel the object of their love is in control, not them. When they get bored, they think someone other than themselves is responsible. They do not understand how their emotions arise

Students feel apathy and boredom when a wall has been constructed between what they feel, think, or yearn to engage with and what is presented to them as the possibilities of their life and education. They have been conditioned to not let anything too real get too close¾or their lives have been too real and frightening, and they can’t or don’t know how to face it. This might help explain why one of the biggest concerns for young people in this nation today is safety….

To read the whole blog, click on this link to the Good Men Project.

The Politics of Gun Violence and Fear

This gun violence must stop. In the past, the gun-reform sentiment only lasted in the media for a few weeks after a violent attack. This time, we must keep up the pressure for change. For what needs changing is not only gun policy.

 

On Tuesday, February 20, on the MSNBC show “The Last Word,” Lawrence O’Donnell said that when teachers go back to school, none of them will know if they will be faced with the possibility of taking a bullet for their students. When they go back, it will be an act of “pure heroism.” The same for students. Going to school, getting an education in this new USA, takes an act of courage. Corporate media and many politicians have been deriding, attacking teachers for years, beginning with President Reagan. But now we see the true grit of educators.

 

But it’s not just teachers and students who are increasingly being forced to eat a diet laced with fear. It’s all of us. An article in the New England Journal of Medicine talks about increased rates of fear and anxiety in our nation. It mentions research by the Southern Poverty Law Center about increased incidents of harassment and intimidation, most commonly in K-12 schools. Others speak of a new disorder: Trump Affective Disorder or Trump Anxiety.

 

A new Quinnipiac poll shows 66% of Americans favor stricter gun laws, 67% favor a ban on assault weapons, 29% oppose it. This sentiment includes some Republicans, even gun owners. According to a poll by Morning Consult and Politico, 88% of Americans back the idea of better background checks. 76% support a waiting period after a firearms purchase and creating a database of gun sales. But some clearly don’t want any regulation. Some clearly do not want the fear and anger that sometimes causes and often follows gun violence to stop.

 

Fear sells guns. Fear sells votes to those willing and craven enough to exploit and create it. Fear creates social breakdown that can be exploited politically.

 

If guns could calm violence and fear, the U. S. would be the safest and calmest nation on earth. We have the highest rate of gun ownership in the world. According to Wikipedia, there are 101 guns per 100 residents. The US is the richest nation in the world. According to NPR, individually, in terms of education and income, we rank number nine. But in terms of deaths due to gun violence, we are number 31. That is eight times higher than Canada, for example. The US makes up 5% of the world’s population, but holds 31% of mass shooters globally. Gun homicide rates are 25.2 times higher in the US than in other high-income nations.

 

If gun ownership promoted peacefulness and a reduction in gun violence, the states that enacted new Stand Your Ground legislation would have fewer incidents of gun violence since the new legislation was passed. But that is not the case. Take Florida, for example, which passed a Stand Your Ground law in 2005. Since then, according to statistics provided by Safehome and crimeadviser.com, there has been a 32% increase in gun-related homicides. “Southern states along the Mississippi River have consistently reported some of the highest rates of firearm deaths.” One thing all of these states share, besides cultural similarities, is that none of them require a license or permit to buy a gun.

 

If gun ownership reduced violence, then passing legislation allowing citizens to carry concealed handguns would lead to a decrease in violent crime. In fact, according to an interview by NPR of Stanford Law Professor and researcher on gun ownership and violence, John Donohue, “the net effect of allowing citizens to carry concealed handguns was an increase in violent crime.”

 

Yet, what does the President and other GOP politicians call for? Arming teachers, bringing more guns to school. That will certainly improve open class discussion. Lawrence O’Donnell says this idea is like a fantasy war game. It is a call for teachers to take on and be trained for an extra job, of a police officer. Trump says maybe 20% (10-40%) of teachers should have guns, which means arming about 700,000 of them (there are about 3.6 million k-12 teachers in the US). That means selling possibly 700,000 guns, plus ammunition⎼and why not body armor? More money for gun manufacturers and the NRA. Just a few weeks ago, he had proposed cutting money for school safety and the education budget and now says he will give a “little bit of a bonus” to teachers who are armed? Where will the money come from? Arts funding (already cut back), maybe school nurses and counselors or after school programs (already cut)—or Medicaid? Social Security? Certainly not from tax cuts to the rich.

 

Fear sells guns. Trump talked of the “American carnage” in his Inaugural address and said the US is in the midst of a crime wave requiring more arrests and harsher penalties, not only for violent, but nonviolent crime (not including white collar or political crimes). This statement runs counter to statistics showing a substantial decline in crime from the early 1990s to 2016. More fear is what T wants.

 

In the past two years, there has been a 7% increase in gun ownership according to the Pew Research Center. According to Fox News, this is most likely an underestimate. In a survey by Zogby Analytics, 35% of gun owners told pollsters that it was none of their business to inquire into gun ownership. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System shows that the number of gun purchases has exploded, almost doubling from 2008 – 2015. Profits for gun sales and the NRA have increased dramatically since Sandy Hook.

 

Fear undermines the politics of mutual concern and replaces it with nativism and hate. Instead of supporting education and science, it supports privatization and militarization. “Beware the military-industrial complex,” said the man who led the US troops in WW II, Dwight D. Eisenhower. I add: Beware those who would turn this nation and its resources over to the overly rich. Beware those who use fear to create political division and polarization.

 

Right wing conspiracy theorists and media have been attacking, sometimes harassing, students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School for speaking out against gun violence. The students have been accused of being coached, or even of being actors hired by the FBI. This right-wing media is followed by about one third of the population, which will not read what it regards as “fake news” by “liberal” media. According to a new study by Oxford University, the “extreme hard-right” shared more fake news stories than all other groups combined. This fake news aims to fuel not only fear but also hate. For example, when anyone calls for real gun regulation, the NRA and right wing media spread fear, claiming Democrats are trying to end the second amendment, and take away their guns and freedom. This fear of Democrats or “liberal media” serves the overly rich in their drive to exhaust the resources of this nation for personal gain. The GOP tax plan, for example, gives the rich in this country, according to the Tax Policy Center, 83% of its tax cuts. By 2027, 53% of Americans will pay more in taxes than they did in 2016, and none of those people will be a high-income earner. Yet, those overly fearful will never allow themselves to see this information.

 

Gun violence fuels fear, polarization, and militarization. It undermines democratic institutions, clear thinking and empathy. Effective measures not only of gun control, but which promote more economic equity and community cohesion, must be found and utilized to decrease the hold of gun violence and halt the assault on democratic values in this nation. Instead of undermining the work of public school teachers, we need to increase support and recognition for them.

“A government of the people, by the people, [and] for the people…”

Last week, Mother Jones magazine ran an article about how “The GOP’s Biggest Charter School Experiment Just Imploded.” It tells the story of the failure and collapse of a charter school called the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, which recently had a student body of over 13,872 students, the largest public charter school, maybe the largest k-12 school, in the US. You might find it interesting. According to the article, the school provided for many a “sham education” and “functioned more like a profit center than an educational institution.”

 

Related to this, the Tallulah Charter School in New Orleans was closed in December after the Louisiana Department of Education voided 325 scores on the LEAP tests after finding evidence of systemic cheating. An investigation found the school was “administering incorrect accommodations, administering accommodations inappropriately and giving students access to test questions prior to the test.”

 

Charter schools are not subject to the same regulation as public schools, so such abuses as reported above are understandable. As Diane Ravitch argues in her book Reign of Error, they “…are deregulated and free from most state laws….” Unlike public schools, which take any and every student who comes to their door, charter schools can screen for the most advantaged. Despite this screening, they are no more successful than public schools. As educator Steven Singer put it, “school choice is no choice.” The schools chose the students more than the other way around. When adjusted for the economic situation of students, statistics show charters often do worse. Charter and other privately run schools can hire uncertified teachers who are not unionized, not as well trained, and who can be paid less.

 

But despite these problems, Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, says she is in favor of establishing a voucher system, where parents can choose where to send their children for their education. Public funds will be used to pay for students to attend charters, religious, or other private schools instead of public ones.

 

She argues, despite evidence showing otherwise, that “choice” will increase equity among all students by forcing competition in the education market. But her approach treats our children as commodities, sources of money, (as exemplified by speaking of “value added” to students by schools) and conceptualizes the purpose of education as meeting the needs of employers, (or in DeVos’ case, meeting her agenda of Christianizing education: see the NYT article on the subject) not meeting the needs and dreams of students.

 

The push for “choice” developed over many years of attacks on the image and funding of public schools. Diane Ravitch argues that education corporations worked with individual politicians to undermine public schools, teachers, and teacher unions, and have been attacking the very concept that a public institution working for the general good, instead of a for-profit corporation, can successfully manage and direct an educational system.

 

Once public education was forced into this deliberately manufactured crisis, there were increasing calls to create privately run, publicly funded, charter schools, and vouchers for private schools. In 2016-7, there were 3.1 million students enrolled in charter schools, triple the number from 2006-7. With charter schools, public money is transferred from teachers and administrators, who are mostly in the middle or lower class, to corporate investors. In the case of cities like NYC, hedge fund managers, whose primary goal is fast profits, have taken over several charter schools.

 

If our society truly wanted to create an equitable educational system it would begin by investing more money in schools where the need was greatest. It would treat teachers with the respect they deserve and need in order to creatively and compassionately meet the educational needs of students. It would do a better job of treating students as whole people with emotional, social, and health needs as well as intellectual ones. It would do any of these things before it would spend one nickel on vouchers or corporate created charter schools.

 

The call for “choice” is a call for privatization of the whole public sphere. It is part of an across the board effort to undermine all aspects of our democracy and to send taxpayer money to rich investors. It is happening with our water systems. In 2011 three quarters of municipalities had public water systems. But the Trump EPA has steadily worked to undermine the rule of law and cut back on protections for rivers and other water systems, and his calls for infrastructure improvements have been tied to pressure for privatization of municipal water systems.

 

It has been happening with prison systems. In 1983, the first private prisons were opened. By 2015, 126,272 people were imprisoned in private institutions. It has been happening with the military. Since the 1990s, the US and other nations have increased their dependence on private military firms (corporate mercenaries). This was highlighted last year when Betsy DeVos’ brother, Erik Prince, tried to get the Trump administration to privatize the war in Afghanistan and turn it over to Prince.

 

It is happening with health, pension and earned benefits systems. The GOP has repeatedly tried to privatize Social Security and end or undermine Medicare and Medicaid in order to appropriate the benefits earned by workers. Mr. T and other Republican politicians repeatedly attack the FBI and CIA. These efforts are partly to undermine the Mueller investigation. It is also to establish an intelligence and investigation institution that owes allegiance not to the constitution, “the people” or the government as a whole, but to Mr. T, personally, as evidenced by T asking for Comey’s “loyalty” and saying he expected the attorney general to protect him from the Russia investigation.

 

I could go on and on, talking about attempts to end voting rights, economic justice and racial, religious or gender equality, destroy the free press, the postal system, etc. Privatization is a vehicle for undermining democracy and destroying the best hope of this nation. President Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address, called for people to dedicate themselves to “the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far nobly advanced… that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from this earth.” Maybe I’m going too far here, but it seems to me that ending a government of, by, and for “the people” is exactly what Mr. T is trying to do. Thus, resisting him and the GOP is nothing less than helping to complete the unfinished work President Lincoln called for.

 

**Thank you to Jill Swenson for the heads up about the first two links about charter schools.

Why Teach? Why Do Anything?

“Why become a teacher? Why chose one profession or job over another? Why do anything? I have to admit that after high school, I told myself I would never teach in a public school. I found education valuable, but the school I had attended was too big and restrictive. I wanted to do something with my life that was meaningful, alive, creative, like write novels, plays or poetry or do something adventurous….

I think teaching is … is one of the most meaningful things you can do. After a day of teaching is over, you don’t have to find other ways to make the world a better place—you do it daily….”

 

To read the rest of this blog, please go to the Good Men Project, which just published it today. It is a re-write of one of my earlier posts.

 

Is The President Undermining Public Education?

President Obama just recently chose John King to replace Arne Duncan as head of the U. S. Department of Education. Until 2014, Mr. King was the education commissioner for New York State. I was glad to see him leave New York, but sad to see him hired by the federal government.

 

Please read different viewpoints on Commissioner King’s policies in New York. He oversaw the implementation of both the Common Core tests in New York, and of teacher accountability ratings based partly on those tests. It is bad enough that standardized testing is being used as anything more than an occasional supplement to in-class assessments. It is an inherently inequitable and a poor vehicle for assessment. (See studies or my blogs on the subject.) The tests were rolled out before many schools and teachers had aligned their classroom instruction with the new standards. This led to great distress on the part of many students who had no knowledge of the material or skills being tested. This was not only an example, however, of mismanagement but a flagrant disregard for the welfare of the students the tests were supposed to benefit. The outcry by parents against the tests and increasing number of students deciding to “opt out” of taking them, grew increasingly embarrassing to the state.

 

Furthermore, Mr. King’s time in office saw New York give more and more money to charter schools, many owned by hedge fund managers and other individuals or corporations whose interest was in making profits from public education funds. (Arne Duncan also has his own charter school controversy.) At the same time, New York was sending less money to poorer districts than more well-off ones. The combination of all these factors has contributed to undermining the whole idea of collective responsibility for the welfare of all students, of all citizens. The responsibility for these actions, however, does not rest solely on Commissioner King, as New York Governor Cuomo must also be held responsible.

 

According to the Encarta dictionary, Democracy is the “free and equal” rule of the people (demos is Greek for people, the common populace, and kratos, rule). To undermine the commons, the public systems including public schools, is to undermine whatever is left of democracy in our country. Just as the responsibility for Mr. King’s actions in New York must be shared by Governor Cuomo, if Mr. King continues these policies in his new role then President Obama must also share responsibility. I thus question President Obama’s commitment to students and to public education with this appointment.