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Our Children (and Our Country) Deserve Democratic Schools

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A few years ago, a reporter in Columbia, South Carolina asked local elementary school children why America celebrates the Fourth of July.

Most of the answers were predictably personal. To eat hot dogs, said one boy. To watch fireworks, a girl answered. Another child thought we all celebrated the Fourth of July because it was his brother's birthday.

One student, a fifth grader from Nursery Road Elementary School named Vante Lee, gave a different answer. "We celebrate the 4th of July," he said, "because we celebrate our freedom and the chance to make our own decisions."

When you were nine, which child's answer would yours have resembled?

Only Vante's words connect the event - Independence Day - to the greater meaning behind it - the birth of a country committed (on our best days) to "freedom and the chance to make our own decisions." What impresses me most is that he understands the right to choose is freedom's greatest gift.

As we prepare to celebrate another 4th of July, I worry that too few of us -- young and old -- understand freedom as well as Vante Lee.

There are many factors contributing to this weakening of our civic character. Only one institution has the potential to help us reclaim a fuller appreciation of the duties and obligations of citizenship in a democracy -- our public school system.

Public education is the only institution that engages 90% of the next generation of
adults, is governed by public authority, and has the explicit mission of preparing children to be active participants in our democracy. As a 2008 report by Common Core noted, "The first mission of public schooling in a democratic nation is to equip every young person for the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship."

To reclaim this "first mission," we need to do more than just tell our children about their rights. Instead, we must ensure that the central elements of our social covenant are also in place in our schools: a clear sense of structure and shared identity on one hand, and an unwavering commitment to individual freedom on the other.

In my years as an educator, I have witnessed scores of schools across the country that choose, consciously or unconsciously, to value one of these needs at the expense of the other. In some schools, kids have too much freedom, and educators end up abdicating their responsibility to serve as authoritative professionals that guide student learning. In others, educators impose too much structure, and kids end up being taught in authoritarian environments that stifle student self-direction and curiosity.

So my Independence Day message is simple: We do not need to choose. It is possible -- indeed, essential - to find the right organizational balance between individual freedom and group structure. In fact, research confirms that when school leaders do so, they create the optimal conditions for student learning, motivation and engagement.

As every educator knows, there is in each of us a deep, powerful and fundamental need to be seen and heard. We want to find our voice - and discover how to utilize it effectively. Learning how to use language effectively is therefore one of our chief resources for becoming visible to the world.

Think about Vante Lee. Even though he was still in elementary school, he had already come to feel that the world he lived in was one where his voice mattered. Better still, it was a world that had already heard that voice.

Imagine what the future must look like to a young person like that? Imagine what a school would need to look like to support the intellectual, social and civic development of a young person like that?

These are not questions that get asked enough in education policy circles. Each of us must ask them at every turn.

The good news is that scores of schools across the country are already helping students like Vante find their voice, thanks in part to networks like the Coalition of Essential Schools (essentialschools.org), and organizations like the Five Freedoms Project (www.fivefreedoms.org), both of which help school leaders create healthy, high-functioning democratic learning communities. The bad news is that this work remains the exception and not the rule.

All of us - whether we are concerned citizens, parents, classroom teachers or school principals - must become more attuned to the individual and group needs of the people around us. When we do so, we create the types of schools that confer not just academic diplomas, but also "degrees" of individual freedom, of civic responsibility, and of shared respect for the power and uniqueness of each person's voice.