Democracy in schools: Albert Dzur talks with principal Donnan Stoicovy

Albert Dzur is breaking ground in political theory by revealing how professionals who interact with laypeople can create valuable democratic practices. Democratic theory has generally been blind to the positive potential of work sites, and especially public sector sites such as schools, hospitals, and courtrooms. It has also generally overlooked the democratic contributions of professionals who choose to engage citizens. Often, populist democrats want to trim the wings of professionals, seeing them as arrogant. But engaging citizens in complex institutions requires skill, dedication, and a kind of expertise–all marks of professionalism. Democratic professionalism is thus an important aspect of civic renewal. (See also “Albert Dzur and democracy inside institutions” and “Public Work and Democratic Professionalism.“)

In the The Good Society (which is now the journal of civic studies), Albert has posted an interview with one such democratic professional, Donnan Stoicovy, who is the principal of Park Forest Elementary School in Pennsylvania. For my friends who are interested in civic education and school reform more than political theory, this interview offers a nice overview of a school-wide intervention. It is not unique or unprecedented, but it is thoughtful and impressive. In essence, the principal asked her whole student body to participate in the writing of a school constitution as a way of meeting the state’s mandate to produce a “school-wide positive behavior plan.”

In other schools, administrators hold assemblies and hand out rewards to well-behaved individuals. At Park Forest, the assemblies were deliberative events aimed at setting rules and norms. As I have observed in other cases as well, the kids came up with more demanding rules than their teachers would have proposed.

This case exemplifies professionalism in several respects. One that I would highlight is the need to navigate tricky tradeoffs. The kids’ rules included “No Put Downs” but also “Speak what we believe and not be judged for it.” Sometimes what we believe comes across as a put down of someone else, especially when the individuals in question are ten years old. Skillfully navigating those tensions is complex work.

The interview ends with some discussion of expanding the scale of such examples. Stoicovy cites limited time as one obstacle; “and I think the other [need] is opportunity to collaborate with other people across the country—similar people who are thinking about this.”

Dzur asks whether universities could help. Stoicovy replies:

I would want everybody to know about democratic schools. I would want universities to be teaching more about democratic schools, in general. I would like more of the work at universities to be helping open students’ minds to thinking about having a responsive classroom, eliciting student voice and engaging students in their school. Not just “here’s what discipline is.” And oftentimes they don’t even teach that until they end up in school and it is modeled for them by whoever their mentor is. Universities need to go back to essential questions like “What is the purpose of public education?”

Universities could also model a more democratic approach. Some of them are getting better at having more engagement work, but without modeling it is hard to open peoples’ minds.