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Democratic Schools, Second Edition: Lessons in Powerful Education

reviewed by Linda McNeil - August 01, 2007

coverTitle: Democratic Schools, Second Edition: Lessons in Powerful Education
Author(s): Michael W. Apple and James A. Beane
Publisher: Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH
ISBN: 0325010757, Pages: 176, Year: 2007
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Democratic Schools: Lessons in Powerful Education, might in its second edition be more appropriately titled “Democratic Schools: Lessons in Fragility, Resilience and Vulnerability.”    The case studies of democracy in action as described in the first edition have not all persisted to the present. The changes, and in some cases the reversals, in these schools bear close examination not merely for our understanding of organizational sustainability, but also for the ways undemocratic social conditions and anti-democratic policies may have worked against these experiments in democratic education.

The issuance of a second edition of Apple and Beane’s Democratic Schools: Lessons in Powerful Education could not be timelier. “Democracy” is seldom invoked in a policy context that seeks merely to “leave no child behind.” Current federal laws govern U.S. public schools through a strict hierarchy, with decisions made at a far remove from communities and classrooms. Standardization has replaced child development, cultural consonance and local democracy as precepts on which decisions about what is valued in our schools can be based (or even as rhetoric to invoke). Democratic Schools is both a call for democratic schooling and a set of exemplars, educational settings that foster democratic education not as a dogma but as lived practice. The first edition, issued a decade ago, featured profiles of democratic schools and classrooms written by the educators who created and led them. This second edition adds to each of those profiles an update, a description of what has happened to each of these case studies in democracy in the intervening decade. It is in these updates that the second edition becomes most instructive and yet, ironically, falls short of its own message.

Beane and Apple open the volume with “The Case for Democratic Schools,” a discussion of democracy as a problematic and conflicted concept in our society. They contrast democracy, and its collective goals of justice and equality, with “freedom,” a term more frequently invoked as interchangeable and yet in the current context as connoting individual advantage in a free market economy. The grounding of democratic processes in deeply held principles, such as the consent of the governed, the common good, the dignity and rights of individuals and minorities, and the open flow of ideas is explained as central to a democratic society and, thus, to the education of children in such a society. The authors offer the case studies for “educators who are committed to democracy, who value the democratic way of life, who believe that schools can be democratic places” (p. 9). They ask, “What is a Democratic School?” The legacy of Dewey, Counts and the Social Reconstructionists forms the backdrop for a discussion of democratic schooling as generative, as being the creation of communities and the children and adults within the school. This internalist view of democratic schooling is posited as possible in, yet inseparable from, external conditions and inequalities in which the children – and the school – live. Thus, the curriculum inside a school based on democratic ideals is one that engages the students and teachers in an authentic examination of proximal societal conditions as well as in a rigorous and empowering academic course of study. Running through this introduction is the centrality of both students and teachers to the construction and sustaining of meaningful and empowering educational experiences.

The case study schools include the Fratney School in Milwaukee and Central Park East Secondary School in New York City, both of which this reviewer has had the privilege of visiting.  A middle school in Madison, Wisconsin, a vocational program in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a classroom in Cabrini Green in Chicago demonstrate the variety of settings and social conditions in which democratic is both a goal and a set of practices in action in service of that ideal.

These are micro-democracies. They represent intentionality, purpose, and thoughtful responses to the conditions of the lives of the children they serve. Each case study chapter gives a brief description of the school or classroom exemplifying an aspect of democratic schooling: from governance, in the case of the Fratney School and Central Park East Secondary School, to a co-constructed and socially aware curriculum (in the Cabrini Green classroom and Madison middle school), to more equitable and economically empowering programs, as evidenced in the creative vocational program in Cambridge, Mass.      

In each case study school, the locus of democratic practice is at the school or classroom level.   Although all are public schools, with elected school boards and state policies enacted by elected state officials  -- ostensibly characteristics of a democratic system of public schooling, none of the authors described a policy context at the state or district level which promoted or demonstrated an explicit commitment to “democratic schooling” as that term is used in this book. The larger district or state system was in the background, was something to go beyond, or was a potential countervailing force. For the Cabrini Green students and teachers, the larger system was represented by a history of neglect and under-resourcing, thus inspiring the campaign of these 5th graders for a new school, a campaign which became the basis for their academic and political (democratic) education.

The schools share a conceptualization of the role of the teacher as professional, as civic-minded and committed to social justice, as creative, as centered on students, and as deeply knowledgeable about the world as well as about their school subjects. They share a sense of schools as places for examining and working to solve social problems, including those endemic to their own school structures and practices. The creation of CityWorks as an innovative vocational program with strong academic content required teachers “to unearth the reasons beneath their current practice, and to reconsider that practice in the light of changing social and economic realities” (p. 115). At this school teachers were asked to reconsider whether what they were teaching was consistent with what they knew from their own work and lives to be important. Their encounters with the cognitive dissonance revealed by that gap led to significant changes in practice, and to a stronger collective voice on behalf of their students.  

The case study schools also shared a view of students as citizens-in-training, as colleagues in the enterprise of creating democratic relationships within classrooms and democratic participation in the school and in the community. Student roles ranged from helping decide what needed to be studied (their environment, the condition of their school, the nature of democratic decision-making itself), to how their studies should proceed and what constituted curriculum resources. The result was not only far greater active learning on behalf of students, but instructional practices which necessarily treated curriculum as interdisciplinary and as evolving, with new information leading to new questions, in a true Deweyan fashion. A curriculum that is interdisciplinary, that is co-created by students around issues significant to their lives, necessarily reshapes the role of the teacher into greater responsibility for understanding those issues and into a greater burden for modeling thinking, investigating, listening, deciding.  

Thus the case studies indirectly but persuasively address the question of whether “democratic” classrooms are nice as an ideal but too touchy-feely to be really practical in a high-stakes world.  These schools show that full participation by students and teachers, and an inquiry stance toward knowledge, both aimed at problems of significance, foster more rigor, not less, and are more likely to fully engage children’s minds and their desire for more knowledge. Teaching students to use their minds well was the fundamental aim of Central Park East, “to prepare them for a well-lived life that is productive, socially useful and personally satisfying” (p. 131). The Habits of Mind around which CPESS organized its curriculum, staffing and assessment embody the intellectual processes at work in the other schools that make up this collection.

The reader’s hope that each of these schools is thriving ten years out is not borne out by the updates the original authors provide. Powerful legacies remain from these schools; in one case (the Madison middle school), the lead teacher has moved beyond that classroom to implement a democratic model schoolwide in another setting. The Fratney School/Escuela Fratney has survived, and its children participated in the immigration marches of 2006, after a deep study of the attendant socio-cultural issues, and they have joined with the Urban Ecology Center to pursue the study of environmental issues. CityWorks did not survive, but a High Tech vocational school in San Diego, described as embracing many of its practices, is successfully merging academic and vocational education without tracking by race, gender, class or perceived academic ability. CPESS generated spin-off small schools in New York City, many of them embodying its participatory practices, and became the inspiration for a national “small schools” effort to reform U.S. high schools. CPESS itself did not survive its’ founders’ leaving, in part because so many of its former teachers left to create the new wave of small schools, but more seriously because of changes in the larger policy landscape.

It is this larger landscape which receives insufficient attention in this volume. It is worthwhile for educators, and citizens, to be reminded that democracy is a process, it is a continual struggle, it is a messy endeavor and one fraught with uncertainties. Each of these case studies is instructive in naming and taking the reader through the particular struggles faced in the creation of democratic schooling: scarce resources, timid (or heavy-handed) bureaucrats, parental uncertainty, community conflicts or fragmentation, personal frustration, inexperience, and initial setbacks. These detailed descriptions take “democracy” out of idealization and into the realities of participatory governance.

What is less successful is the discussion of the “larger social forces” which are alluded to in several of the updates and in the editors’ conclusion, but not adequately addressed. As such, several threats to democratic schooling which these and other educators have to contend with are left as vague outlines in a backdrop, not as forces acting on schools. These are not trivial:  CPESS’s portfolio assessments, at the heart of their curriculum and students’ academic program, were eclipsed by New York state policies, as implemented by the New York City Schools, requiring standardized testing for “accountability.” Standardization by definition renders the tests, and the curriculum to be tested, generic, thus divorced from the intellectual work, the community concerns, and the exchange of ideas central to a democratically based classroom. In addition, the tests are subject-specific, thus undermining the school’s interdisciplinary curriculum, the basis for students’ learning. That its small size, rather than its Habits of Mind and democratic purpose, has become its most commonly emulated feature of CPESS exemplifies the fragility of democratic schooling in the current policy context. The Fratney School/La Escuela Fratney, too, has felt the brunt of policy shifts, which undermine its fundamental rationale, including district requirements under the federal NCLB act to shift classroom time to drill for standardized tests. Despite its many years of educating children well, the school has suffered such basic cutbacks as the loss of its librarian at the same time millions of state dollars were shifted into a voucher program.

The editors quote Maxine Greene’s advice: “Surely it is an obligation of education in a democracy to empower the young to become members of the public, to participate, and play articulate roles in the public space” (1985, p. 4).  A reader of these case study updates might ask if it is not also the obligation of the larger society to similarly empower its teachers, the adults who work each day with its children. Barbara Brodhagen ends her chapter on the Madison school with this statement: “Teachers who are committed to creating democratic classrooms will always find ways to make this happen” (p. 106). Reading Democratic Schools raises the question of why this is the burden of the teacher, and exceptional teachers at that. Democratic classrooms should not, in this country, be exceptions. Whole schools centered on democratic learning should not be anomalies. And neither should they be fragile. This book would have made a much stronger contribution to democratic schooling if in its conclusion the editors had addressed more explicitly those policies and social forces which remain only suggested in this volume but which are increasingly systemic (e.g., standardization, growing economic and social inequalities), increasingly deskilling of teachers (again, standardization), and de-democratizing (privatization, marketization, culturally subtractive linguistic policies). There are other gaps in this volume, particularly the need to be more explanatory of community, including a cultural analysis of “communities” as related to our children and their schools.

But the greatest flaw is that the volume is strangely silent on the subject of power, about which no one writes more compellingly than Michael Apple. Without that analysis at least in an abbreviated form, these case studies imply the burden is on the teacher (perhaps with other teachers, some parents and great kids) to educate democratically in an increasingly undemocratic society. For teachers to undertake the creation of democratic classrooms, democratically significant lesson topics, democratically run schools, they need to be a part of a larger collective democratic endeavor. They need to know how to collectively address anti-democratic forces, without having to wait until the children they are teaching now grow up and take them on. And they need the assurance that others are working with them to understand what those forces are and whose interests they are serving. If democratic schools are not to be exceptions, then the forces of de-democraticization cannot remain backgrounded, unelaborated.  This 2007 edition already seems dated without this very needed discussion of the relationship of the micro-democracies teachers can try to create in classrooms and the forces working against a public school system where democratic schooling is not the exception. Case studies dealing with those issues could make a powerful companion volume.


Greene, M. (1985).  The role of education in democracy.  Educational Horizons, 63 (Special Issue), 3-9.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 01, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14574, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 1:42:37 PM

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About the Author
  • Linda McNeil
    Rice University
    E-mail Author
    LINDA MC SPADDEN MCNEIL is professor of education and director of the Center for Education at Rice University in Houston. She writes about urban schooling, the education of Latino youth, standardization and educational equity. She is the author of Contradictions of School Reform: Educational Costs of Standardized Testing (Routledge, 2000).
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