Democracy and Equity: CES’s Tenth Common Principle

Principle 10: “The school should demonstrate non-discriminatory and inclusive policies, practices, and pedagogies. It should model democratic practices that involve all who are directly affected by the school. The school should honor diversity and build on the strengths of its communities, deliberately and explicitly challenging all forms of inequity and discrimination.”

The room crackled with energy and tension as the 100 members of the Coalition’s governing Congress gathered at the 1997 Fall Forum to carry out their historic task. These school people, who came from backgrounds as diverse as the constituencies that sent them to San Francisco from around the world, were about to write a Tenth Common Principle behind which Essential schools everywhere would agree to rally-a principle that called for democracy and equity as central to a youngster’s education.

And as they argued out how that new language should go, they made a striking picture of how far the Coalition of Essential Schools has come since its founding in 1986. From a small partnership between Brown University and a dozen high schools, it has mushroomed into an international movement involving more than fifteen hundred schools serving students of all ages. Soon, buttressed by a growing national network of regional Centers and governed by representatives from member schools, it will move its small national staff to San Francisco. Only Theodore R. Sizer, the Coalition’s founder and chairman who wrote the original Nine Common Principles, will maintain the formal connection with Brown, where he is Professor Emeritus.

Essential schools now appear in the country’s largest districts and its smallest; they serve its most advantaged students and those who have the fewest resources. And as a growing United States economy divides residents increasingly into haves and have-nots, Essential school people are coming head to head with painful issues of fairness, opportunity, and power.

What do “democracy” and “equity” look like in schools and systems that operate in a society so divided? How will policies and practices have to change, from the bottom to the top, if school people take this Tenth Common Principle seriously? Over 3,000 Fall Forum participants wrestled with those questions in the next days, sharing their perspectives and dilemmas and often challenging the status quo.

At roundtable discussions and in workshops, they told how their schools are changing curriculum, assessment, and classroom practices to affirm the presence and contributions of diverse groups, improving opportunities and raising expectations for students of all descriptions.

Students, teachers, and parents spoke of making their voices heard in systems that have long ignored or silenced them. Administrators looked at how school and district structures and systems, from tracked courses to funding patterns, inhibit or advance student learning. University educators talked of how to prepare a new generation of teachers for the most diverse student population in history.

And Ted Sizer spoke of the central purpose of a democratic education: to help young people become intellectually free.

“If democracy is about responsible freedom,” he said, “it depends on a citizenry which sees the world clearly, which is respectful of past ideas but never their prisoner-a citizenry not easily gulled by specious arguments, which can imagine something new in the familiar, which has the courage always to ask the questions why and what if?”

And such a citizenry depends, John Dewey argued in his 1914 book, Democracy and Education, on all students having the equal opportunity to develop and practice those skills in the public schools.

Hard Data, Hard Inequities

A look at current United States social, economic, and educational statistics makes this vision seem a long way away. In the past decade, the percentage of minority students in our schools has steadily grown; by 2030, demographic researchers predict, students of color will make up over half the country’s schoolchildren, and language-minority students about 40 percent.

But despite substantial gains in achievement by minority students between 1970 to 1988, their progress has dropped steadily in the last ten years, as school policies and priorities have shifted. “Our educational system is so full of inequities that it actually exacerbates the challenges of race and poverty, rather than ameliorates them,” asserts Ruth Mitchell of the Education Trust, a Washington-based advocacy group. “We take students who have less to begin with and give them less in school, too.” (See sidebar.)

In ways both hidden and explicit, many researchers have shown, schools routinely fail students without social or economic power.

By tracking or placing them into less demanding courses or even into athletics, they limit students’ options or contribute to their boredom and failure. By massing kids in large and anonymous school structures, they ensure that teachers cannot know them well and invite an atmosphere of mutual distrust and fear.

“The way we organize schools-even the very way we all too often think about them-still smacks more of early twentieth century administrative Progressivism than of late twentieth century scholarship about human learning and contemporary democratic values,” says Ted Sizer.

Recent large-scale research on student engagement and academic achievement bears out his long-held conviction that Essential school principles foster a more equitable and effective education than do traditional bureaucratic models.

After following students in 820 United States high schools for five years, V. E. Lee, J. B. Smith, and R. G. Croninger concluded in a 1995 study that all students learned more in more personal learning communities marked by a common and demanding academic curriculum-but poor and minority children improved most of all.

Likewise, disadvantaged students benefit more from smaller schools and class sizes. Three recent studies conducted in California, West Virginia, and Alaska show that the achievement of students from both urban and rural poor communities goes up substantially in small schools, while larger schools actually exacerbate the negative effects of poverty on student learning.

And a major long-term study of elementary students in Tennessee confirmed earlier findings that small class sizes substantially raise student learning-and that poor and nonwhite students benefit most of all. (Using Title 1 or other special funds to pull out students for remediation, on the other hand, often raises the size of other classes-and so even though the pupil-teacher ratio of the school goes down, the equity gap may actually increase.)

But because children usually go to schools funded by the districts where they live, poor students get unequal access to resources and opportunities. Their classes are bigger; their teachers have heavier student loads and less planning time; their libraries have fewer books. They are less likely to have a teacher who knows them and understands their culture.

And because later success depends on such resources and opportunities, a cycle of failure sets in. “Based on this year’s fourth-grade reading scores,” observes Paul Schwartz, a Coalition principal in residence at the U. S. Department of Education, “California is already planning the number of new prison cells it will need in the next century.”

Brave Beginnings

Against this bleak landscape, some brave beginnings did gleam among Essential schools that brought their work to the Fall Forum. And the teachers who gathered there to hear Beverly Daniel Tatum, Anne Bouie, Lily Wong Fillmore, Ruth Johnson, and other educators well known for their work on equity issues seemed eager to engage in the hard talk necessary if public schools are to carry out their charge to educate the free citizens of a democracy.

“We can only arrive at democracy by surfacing inequity,” declared Amy Gerstein, the Coalition’s Executive Director. “How are we attend-ing to the common good? Why do certain groups of students succeed more than others? How do we know we provide adequate support for all students to meet high standards?”

Wherever such inequities exist-along color and class lines, between boys and girls, between English-speakers and language minorities, among students with special learning needs, or among the community of teachers, students, and parents-schools must expose and struggle to right them, she urges. “These biases run deep in our country’s history”, she points out. So, “Rather than get mired in guilt or blame,” she says, “we need to begin to recognize the ways we inadvertently show bias, and act to change them.”

Two teachers at McClure Elementary School in Philadelphia, for example, began to worry that many students whose home languages were not English were being referred for special education services without sufficient attention to their cognitive language ability. “The basic tools we use to measure language dominance-a reading inventory in English, for instance-are often the sole source of information,” Carol Nejman and Nelson Reyes observed in a Fall Forum workshop they led.

To remedy the situation, McClure developed intake interviews for parents and students in both English and Spanish. Two bilingual counselors now evaluate children’s overall language development, modifying the district’s standard test battery to get a clearer picture of which kind of instruction-bilingual-transitional, English as a Second Language (ESL), or other special education-best fits a child’s needs.

This is just one example of how assessment policies-whether at the school, the district, or the state level-can either support or inhibit the learning of diverse student populations. At worst, the growing trend toward high-stakes, multiple-choice, standardized tests can sharply limit the future options of students who bring different starting points, understandings, and learning styles to school.

Moreover, by labeling resource-poor schools as unsuccessful on the basis of one-shot outcome indicators, districts often ignore their effectiveness in bringing student learning up from starting points well below that of their richer neighbors. More sophisticated analyses-which may control for incoming language ability, or for income-related enrichment opportunities-can show academic gains far more encouraging.

Essential schools typically use portfolios and exhibitions to assess students’ abilities to solve problems and express ideas in deeper and fuller ways. In dozens of Fall Forum workshops, teachers described techniques that provide fairer achievement measures for students with very different backgrounds.

But even when teachers design classroom assessments specifically for alternative learning styles, subtle issues of equity can result. “In breaking out of the essay-only mold, we often latch onto presentation forms that might engage students-but that don’t push them to represent deep understanding,” notes Eileen Barton, who teaches at Chicago’s Sullivan High School. “Is it fair to ask a child to demonstrate knowledge of the solar system by writing a play whose characters are the planets?” Maybe, she says-but only if both teacher and student already have the basic understanding it takes to create a three-dimensional model of the solar system.

Who Can Learn What?

All these instances have to do with democracy and equity-whose voice matters, who gets to decide, who learns what, whose vision of the “good life” schools foster. From the top to the bottom of the ladder, school people live with the dynamics of power and control.

States and districts dictate what schools must teach and even how many minutes students must spend on different subjects. Scores on impersonal tests dictate who can take which courses, and what kinds of social and economic power result from which kinds of course. Text-books promote an “official knowledge” that strips issues of controversy and differing perspectives. Teachers, students, and parents have little say over how students may demonstrate learning, and whether the materials they study have anything to do with the real issues about which they may care.

In a system dominated by a few key players at the top, no one expects teachers to critique the way things are. Broad participation in matters like this, after all, creates a contentious mess. Things go much more smoothly if teachers agree to be the system’s compliant technicians, not its inquiring critics or change agents, and if parents and students just stay in their place.

But in schools around the country, people are beginning to reject this view. Refusing to be silenced or excluded, they are creating new ways to practice democracy.

At a shelter in Louisville, Kentucky, homeless parents worked with The Right Question, a Boston-based advocacy group, on three key questions: “How can I support my child’s education? How can I monitor my child’s progress? How can I advocate for my child?”

In this district of many Essential schools, where state standards and tests drive rewards and punishment for all schools, one parent attended the session “to understand the standards expected of my child,” she said. Another wrote that he would “not settle for “doing OK” anymore.”

“These parents are a model of participatory democracy,” says Dan Rothstein, who directs The Right Question. “They are building the skills they need to focus effectively on student learning, holding the system accountable to its citizens.”

When local school councils made up of parents and teachers hold authority over decisions about hiring, budgets, and other key matters, some long-standing control patterns have begun to shift. In Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York, Essential schools and others have struggled to keep such reforms meaningful in a climate of top-down assessment and accountability.

In Santa Rosa, California, Piner High School takes extra steps to involve adult advocates of students from under-represented, lower-income, or ethnically diverse populations. In the Bronx, University Heights High School parents work on hiring, curriculum planning and implementation, assessment, creating and carrying out school policies, and networking with other schools.

Other schools have taken steps to make more rigorous curriculum available to all students. The Brooklyn (NY) International High School developed a “Law and Theory” curriculum for its very heterogeneous student body of recent immigrants, who represent an array of cultures, educational backgrounds, and levels of English language development. At Chicago’s DuSable High School, teacher Malik Bush has worked toward gender equity in students’ use of technology resources. And many Essential Schools, from Fenway Middle College in Boston to Piner High School in Santa Rosa, Califor-nia, have adopted integrated math programs that teach high-level algebra to all students.

When parents and students contribute to such decisions, they also tend to take responsibility for what results. At the School Without Walls in Rochester, New York, students are deeply involved in developing and negotiating the curriculum itself, often arranging to pursue studies at local colleges or with community mentors. Daily attendance is 90 percent; discipline problems are few; test scores are better than for comparable groups; and 80 percent of students go on to college.

Sharing Work and Credit

The Met school in Providence, Rhode Island focuses learning around student choice, based on the interests of individuals and groups of students. Every student has a learning plan created and monitored by a team of parents, the student, teachers, and outside mentors; learning is assessed through portfolios. Schedules are individual; work takes place through projects, not in formal courses.

The Scarsdale (NY) Alternative School involves both teachers and students in enforcing agreed-upon school rules and settling issues that inevitably surface in a high school community. Like many other Essential schools, its democratic structures include community meetings, advisory groups, and a Fairness Committee that hears and mediates grievances. But Scarsdale stands out because students must each year affirm the school’s Constitution and renew their commitment to upholding it.

Students and teachers at the Village School in Great Neck, New York take their shared jurisdiction even further, to encompass academic credit as well as behavior norms. In a court-like proceeding twice yearly, they meet in “credit boards” to decide who will receive course credit for the semester’s courses. Students have an equal vote and often outnumber faculty at the proceedings, which are preceded by three six-week “modules” in which parents and children meet with advisors to assess progress.

Issues of democracy and equity can give rise to tense situations in schools, which often see their function as maintaining stability, not challenging who holds the reins within the school culture and the larger society. Even when they espouse “multicultural education,” schools can easily be promoting a version of diversity that serves the interests of those already in power.

The steps to raise awareness of these issues may be small, but they can have a steady positive effect. Concerned that their public school of choice was too white, for example, students and teachers at the Alternative Community School in Ithaca, New York began ten years ago to recruit more students of color. An Anti-Racism School Lead-ership project soon developed, which used every avenue to raise awareness of racism throughout the school. Today, that group has become a catalyst for surfacing all forms of bias; and a new graduation requirement asks students to dem-onstrate some concrete and personal way in which they have take action for a more equitable community.

“Nobody ever wants to give up power,” says Lisa Delpit, whose books on race have influenced teachers for a decade. But as Essen-tial school people look more closely at the purposes and effects of their routine policies and practices, hard decisions about shifting power and resources may in time dislodge the comfortable bedrock of privilege on which the current system rests. Their attention to equity in education cannot be dismissed as “political correctness”; it is the very backbone of American democracy.

For Discussion: Make a list of your favorite students, then break it down by family income or status, color, gender, or other group traits. Do patterns emerge?