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Participatory Democracy and Struggling Schools: Making Space for Youth in School Turnarounds


by Ben Kirshner & Antwan Jefferson — 2015

Background/Context:Federal policy, as codified in Race to the Top (RTT) funding guidelines, outlines four types of intervention: turnaround, restart, closure, and transformation. RTT has embraced a technocratic paradigm for school reform that frames choice less as the opportunity for the public to deliberate about what it wants from its schools and more in terms of the freedom of individual families to choose, as customers, from a diverse array of school options. This market-based system has eroded substantive opportunities for parents and students to participate in decisions about their schools. Although scholars have developed compelling arguments about the need to involve parents and teachers in a more deliberative and democratic approach to intervening in low-performing schools, there is little scholarship focused on the role of young people in school intervention processes.

Purpose: There is widespread agreement among progressive critics that RTT interventions are not sufficiently democratic. More work is needed to develop participatory approaches. In some cases this may require departing from a strict “evidence-based” framework and imagining new alternatives consistent with values of social justice and educational equity. It also requires expanding existing treatments of deliberative democracy theory to include young people.

Research Design & Findings: This article makes a conceptual argument rooted in theory, empirical literature, and practical experience in schools. After explaining theories of participatory democracy, youth–adult partnerships, and thirdspace, we propose five practices that should guide a deliberative, participatory approach to public decision-making about schools. These are: border-crossing facilitation, participatory research, multilingual and multicultural discourse practices, authentic decision-making, and joint work and distributed expertise.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The current school turnaround paradigm, embodied by closures, conversion to charters, and teacher reassignments, has left a great deal of collateral damage in its wake. Teachers work under threat of firing. We propose an alternative approach to improve struggling public neighborhood schools—not just another option in a menu of turnaround strategies, but an alternative frame and set of practices that expands the conversation about intervention. This approach encourages deliberation and communication among diverse networks of students, teachers, and families.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 117 Number 6, 2015, p. 1-26
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17879, Date Accessed: 10/19/2017 7:06:25 AM

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About the Author
  • Ben Kirshner
    University of Colorado Boulder
    E-mail Author
    BEN KIRSHNER is an associate professor in the School of Education at the University of Colorado, Boulder. His research examines how young people interpret their social context and learn how to exercise collective political agency. Recent publications include: “Youth organizing as a developmental context for Latino and African American youth” (2012, Child Development Perspectives) with Shawn Ginwright, and “Learning how to manage bias: A case study of youth participatory action research” (2011, Applied Developmental Science) with Kristen Pozzoboni and Hannah Jones.
  • Antwan Jefferson
    University of Colorado Denver
    E-mail Author
    ANTWAN JEFFERSON is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the School of Education and Huma Development at the University of Colorado Denver. His research examines the interactions of families, communities and schools in contexts of school reform. His most recent publication is “Examining barriers to equity: School policies and practices prohibiting interaction of families and schools” (2015, The Urban Review).
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