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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