Tuesday, April 04, 2006


One crucial problem for educational scholarship is our lack of knowledge and practical understanding of (at least) three key issues relevant to democracy and social action in education.


Few of us know much of anything about the rich traditions of social action and community engagement that emerged over the course of the last century in the United States. There is a tendency in the literature to refer only vaguely to these different movements, especially the efforts of different civil rights organizations in the 1950s and 1960s, and to describe them, generally, as examples of Deweyan democracy. (see, especially, Maxine Greene’s influential writings).

A closer look indicates that efforts in unions, civil rights, second-wave feminism, etc., drew from an extremely broad range of different practices of collective action and empowerment. As Manning Marable has pointed out, for example, the history of black struggle in America is not a single narrative but instead has involved a continuing and often quite contentious debate about how to proceed. Dewey’s vision of collaborative democracy—especially in his focus on the actualization of individuals—is not at all the dominant approach in these different groups. In fact, one finds that the general model of Deweyan democracy that dominates educational scholarship tends to emerge almost exclusively in organizations dominated by the middle class (and not always even in these). Actual contexts of social action generally involve a complex alchemy of class, race, gender, and more. (And, of course, discussions of more working-class models of collective action, in unions and in some civil rights organizations, for example, are especially lacking in the educational literature.)

Unless we start to look beyond our cherished visions of collaborative Deweyan classrooms and towards other models of organizing groups against oppression, our discussions of practices for democratic education will continue to have limited relevance to the needs of working-class children and their communities. The point is not that we need to leave Dewey behind, but that we need to supplement his vision with a range of perspectives and approaches that often conflict with it.


Few of us know much of anything about the wide range of strategies for fostering community empowerment currently being pursued in communities across America. In areas of urban poverty, especially, educators and educational scholars generally look at the community (when we think of it at all) through the filter of the thick walls and hurricane fencing of schools, especially in areas of urban poverty. Our positioning inside schools, I think, fundamentally distorts our understanding of urban communities and their social processes.

In fact, in an article currently under review, I argue that we have developed _no_ general models that seem capable of systematically fostering anything like equitable collaborations between schools and their local communities in oppressed areas. Because they are dominated by middle-class professionals, schools have proved largely incapable of truly collaborating with the communities they serve. While I describe a number of models of community-school engagement based _outside_ of schools that seem at least somewhat effective at facilitating participation, few educational scholars have any experience with or knowledge of these approaches.

We are schools of education, not schools of schooling. But most of us generally see our duties as ending at the edge of the schoolyard. As long as we continue to limit our analyses to schools, and to analyses of families from the perspective of schools, we will continue to fail to understand how to foster truly collaborative relationships between schools and impoverished communities.


Some have argued that it is simply impossible to teach strategies of collective action in a public school. In fact, however, there are models, like Public Achievement (publicachievement.org) that currently operate out of schools in multiple states. The important task is to teach students how to act collectively against oppression, but these practices can be learned as a part of seemingly innocuous projects that are unlikely to generate resistance in the general public. One of my favorite examples is of an elementary school class that lobbied for, and achieved, a new law regarding child restraints in their state legislature.

The fact is that opportunities to learn skills of social action are almost entirely missing from schools, both public and private. Because of this, even very small increases in the number of sites where these skills might be learned would represent, in percentage terms, an enormous move forward. Imagine if only 1% of all high-poverty schools in America pursued robust efforts to teach their students to act collectively against oppression. I believe this could make a significant impact on the present and future empowerment of them as individuals and of their communities.

Outside of schools, increasing numbers of organizations are springing up around the nation, working to foster youth action and organizing. Again, however, as long as the vast majority of us continue to limit our focus to schools (and not education more broadly) these efforts will remain largely invisible to us.

There are a few examples of efforts to understand more systematically how to engage youth in collective action efforts, including an emerging literature on youth organizing (http://www.fcyo.org/), and the work of Jeanne Oakes and John Rodgers’s team at UCLA (http://www.idea.gseis.ucla.edu/).

In my own department, I have been working with a large collaborative research team to examine the Public Achievement model for facilitating student social action. Over the last semester we facilitated eleven different Public Achievement groups (about 10 weeks of work with each group) in a local, inner-city charter high school. We collected detailed fieldnotes about each weekly meeting. This semester a colleague and I are working with the students to analyze the enormous stack of data this generated in an effort to understand what happened (and didn’t happen). Next year we will repeat this effort, altering our approach in response to what we have learned in our first attempt.


If we are serious about fostering social action, public participation, and empowered democratic citizenship in schools, I believe we cannot avoid rethinking the current structure of schools of education. Because our institutions are almost entirely focused on supporting schooling, we generally lack scholars whose interests might help develop and disseminate knowledge about social action and community empowerment. It would help immensely if other departments besides my own could begin to offer programs for non-school community educators, programs that could provide a long-term enrollment base to support such scholars. In any case, until we begin to bring in and support a new generation of scholars who are willing to grapple with these issues, we will continue to remain largely ignorant of them. Whether such a change is actually possible, I don’t know.
Jean Anyon’s new book _Radical Possibilities_ gives a nice overview of a range of different community action approaches. Dennis Shirley’s _Community Organizing for Urban School Reform_, published almost a decade ago, remains the only comprehensive and sophisticated study of relationships between community organizing groups and schools. See also, however, a range of reports about community organizing and schools increasingly emerging from a range of private foundations, non-profit organizations, and a few university research centers (e.g., www.edfunders.com/downloads/edorgbibliography.doc). David Levine’s blog (http://www.peterlevine.ws/mt/) provides a thoughtful overview of current research on civic education in the United States and beyond, although little of what he discusses addresses the kind of issues I examine, above. Fred Rose’s book, _Organizing Across the Class Divide_, provides the best discussion I have found about the relationship between social class and preferences for particular practices of social action.

1 comment:

Jim Horn said...

I applaud the call for action, rather than just talking about action. But unless the call is translated into doing, then the call itself remains just talk, too. Talk about talk about doing.

In terms of the perceived reification of Dewey, Dewey readers know that he would be aghast at the notion that anyone would look to Dewey for a formula that could solve problems into the future that Dewey could not have anticipated. Dewey was too much of an evolutionary democrat for that, and someone, too, that continuity is represented by past, present, and future.

And yes, I agree, too, that social action, as Myles Horton pointedly pointed out, happensmost often despite school, not because of it. Highlander was, indeed, about education, but hardly about school.

At this point in history, however, it seems to me that we educators of educators are faced with a much more pressing choice than a preferred venue for social action. That choice is whether or not we believe that public education in schools should continue and be improved or whether it should die and be replaced.

If we are unwilling or unable to make that choice, I can guarantee that the choice will be made for us. So while I embrace the notion of strategies to fight oppression inside and outside the schools, I would argue that the possibility of carrying on the good fight (above ground, at least) hinges on the civic commitment symbolized and made tangible in the public school system.

In short, if we don't support schooling, public schooling, our opportunities to educate for democracy will be replaced for something that will be quite different, I am sure.

In keeping with that spirit, then, of doing is knowing, I have 20 Reasons to Eliminate NCLB (yes, I am obsessed, and I don't mind that my obsession may appear entirely pedestrian to my collleagues who serve the important function as the "elites of non-elitism" (Marquard, 1988):

20 Reasons to Eliminate NCLB

1. An education policy built on impossible performance demands that assure the failure of the majority of American public schools should be eliminated, not reformed.
2. An education policy that has the same impossible demands for most English-language learners and special education students should be eliminated, not reformed.
3. An education policy that traumatizes children, destroys the desire to learn, and corrupts the purposes for learning should be eliminated, not reformed.
4. An education policy that uses fear, intimidation, and retribution as motivation should be eliminated, not reformed.
5. An education policy that uses a single assessment once a year to make life-altering decisions should be eliminated, not reformed.
6. An education policy that ignores poverty as a chief determinant in academic performance should be eliminated, not reformed.
7. An education policy that creates two different school curriculums, one for the children of the poor and one for well-funded successes, should be eliminated, not reformed.
8. An education policy that uses skewed and manipulated science to devise a national reading and research strategy should be eliminated, not reformed.
9. An education policy that uses the strain of test score competition to undercut public cohesion and civic commitment to democratic goals should be eliminated, not reformed.
10. An education policy that shrinks the American school curriculum to two or three subjects that are tested should be eliminated, not reformed.
11. An education policy that discourages diversity and encourages homogeneity in schools should be eliminated, not reformed.
12. An education policy that supports the use of tax dollars to fund private schools rather than public school improvement should be eliminated, not reformed.
13. An education policy that advocates the use of public money to pay private contractors to run public schools should be eliminated, not reformed.
14. An education policy that is built on unfunded and under-funded mandates should be eliminated, not reformed.
15. An education policy that reduces or eliminates local and state decision making by citizens should be eliminated, not reformed.
16. An education policy that mandates that military recruiters have access to student information should be eliminated, not reformed.
17. An education policy that inflames a teacher shortage in order to replace professional teachers with individuals who have passed a teaching test should be eliminated, not reformed.
18. An education policy that is used to reward tax dollars to insiders and cronies for their political support should be eliminated, not reformed.
19. An education policy that uses paid propaganda to advance its agenda should be eliminated, not reformed.
20. An education policy that puts test scores in the place of the intellectual, social, and emotional growth of America’s children should eliminated, not reformed.

10 Action Strategies for Eliminating NCLB

1. Hold a public forum in your community to explore and explain these points.
2. Organize community and neighborhood potluck dinners with teachers and parents to talk together about how NCLB is affecting children and school.
3. Persuade your organizations to pass resolutions calling for the repeal of NCLB based on these points.
4. Collect signatures on a Petition to Eliminate NCLB based on these 20 points. Publicize your results in the local media and send copies of resolutions and petitions to your local and federal elected officials.
5. Write letters-to-the-editor and op-ed pieces for your local and regional newspapers, making these points.
6. Get your local school board to pass a resolution or hold a community forum about eliminating NCLB.
7. Contact your U.S. senators and representatives about eliminating NCLB: Call them, write or email them (send these points and other information), and set up meetings with them in your district (bring a group of children).
8. Contact your state legislators to enlist them in the effort to eliminate NCLB; get state legislatures to pass resolutions.
9. Parents: Join the NCLB-mandated Parents Advisory Board at your child’s school. Bring the 20 Reasons to Eliminate NCLB to begin a dialogue.
10. Organize a public protest or march on test days or days given over to test preparation.

If you do not have the documentation you need to explain the 20 Reasons, or if you can't find it on this or other websites, contact me via email.