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Democratic Learning: The Challenge to School Effectiveness

reviewed by Daniel C. Elliott - 2005

coverTitle: Democratic Learning: The Challenge to School Effectiveness
Author(s): John Macbeath and Lejf Moos
Publisher: Routledge/Falmer, New York
ISBN: 0415326966 , Pages: 208, Year: 2004
Search for book at Amazon.com

Around the democratic world schooling has evolved over time. It would seem that the reforms so prevalent in the

USA are mirrors of reforms in Scandinavia , and the rest of Western Europe . Democratic Learning: The Challenge to School Effectiveness presents readers with nine essays about the impact of democracy upon the concepts of school reform and improvement. John Macbeath and Lejf Moos have presented their edited handbook with commentaries from nine educational theorists serving in university education programs across the globe. These authors have analyzed the reforms of schooling and society across the latter half of the 20th century and drawn conclusions about the success and failure to make schooling most relevant and effective.

The theme of the book, “democracy,” is by the authors’ design the desired theme of the common or public schooling engine that should drive and equip every free democratic society. Authors present and debate definitions of democratic principles and of democracy itself when applied to schooling content, teaching processes, and institutional management.

But the book is not for the casual observers of schools. The high level vocabulary and frequent use of unfamiliar terms, acronyms, and issues familiar only to well-informed educators and educational scholars will frustrate those not already schooled in educational reform history and practice. Some of the chapters are quite interesting and read with ease while others simply bog down in quasi-research details that seem to distract from, rather than contribute to, the point at hand—the impact and need for schools driven by the engine of internal democracy.

The philosophical divergence between the authors from the

USA and those from Scandinavia is more than apparent, with the latter opting for principles of social democracy, reminiscent of socialism and communism movements in Europe during the early to middle parts of the 20th century. Moos and Macbeath opt for increasing democracy in action in order to gain the elusive school effectiveness in their opening and closing of the book.

Kathryn Reily weighs in with the

United Kingdom ’s perspective on school reform and laments the multi-directional experiences of the latter 20th century in most national school reform movements. She introduces a completely bottom-up democratic schooling reform from the nation of Guinea as illustrative of what could be in the world’s schools were democracy to be the driving engine for education. Perhaps most telling among her arguments is her question, “What’s school got to do with learning” (p. 66). Reily takes issue with reformers who consider all the voices except the parents and children themselves.

Karen Seashore Louis responds from the

United States to echo the sentiment and calls for some comparisons to be made. She points out similarities and differences among the concepts of liberal democracy, social democracy, and participatory democracy when applied to schooling. Some of her observations about the misapplication of the incorrect concept in the name of democracy presented laughable relief from this otherwise weighty book. She wisely advises advocates to be clear about the concepts we claim to be inserting into the engine of school change and improvement for there are societal ideological consequences that may not be well recognized by the masses but thoroughly understood by a controlling elite.

Mats Ekholm discusses school democratic changes and focuses on his research findings from Swedish schools across the latter half of the 20th century. He aligns his findings with those of Michael Fullan in the 1990’s and asserts that there needed to be reframing of the discussion from negative to positive issues about what is good in schooling and what people directly connected with schools really want. He cites powerful evidence from the Swedish effective schools literature consistent with other findings in other countries across the last century. The most effective democratic learning systems were ones where teachers remained with students for a period of years as they progressed through their age-advancing curriculum but at their own pace. This well-documented fact has gone largely ignored by most in the public school industry due to its disquieting implications about adult inconvenience.

Peter Schultz Jorgensen introduces us to the raging political debates about children’s rights across the face of the democratic globe. He points out that politically liberal concepts infusing education would initiate a backlash from the large numbers of politically conservative people in the various democratic nations. Jorgenson suggests that the two sides ought to be more realistic about their proposals, realizing they are inflaming each other, and that children are not necessarily well served by either system. He advocates better communication about truth.

Michael Schratz and Loffler-Anzbock present a discussion that does not quite live up to its racy title. “The Darker Side of Democracy” brings up images of the ominous social control philosophies noted by Schultz in the previous chapter. But, in fact all this chapter discusses is the process of leading children to take, analyze, and present a series of black and white pictures to represent what they see their schools to be. He reports dialogue among group members that seems quite cute but does not particularly inform this weighty debate.

“Democratic Leadership in an Age of Managerial Accountability,” by Jorunn Moller reflects the huge pressure that most schoolteachers and administrators are chafing under in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century. His analyses of the research literature highlights the truth that ‘democracy in learning’ is more an idealized notion than a factual reality when one asks parents, students, teachers, and even administrators. He points to a power struggle that is being won by the bureaucrats and mega-organizations, and lost by parents and students with regard to the best options for schooling.

Alma Harris discusses the divergence between managerial influences upon school policy by clarifying key characteristics of the approaches to school leadership. Her arguments are very reminiscent of the “shared decision-making” literature across the USA in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Her study points out what every graduate from an administrator training program has written papers about in the past two years—that effective school leadership requires vision with values, distributive leadership, true staff-development owned by staff, genuine positive relationships among leaders and teachers, and all built into a sense of what she calls “community” but what others call “family.”

Kai-ming Cheng analyzes changes in business workplaces within democratic societies and correlates those to a series of lists about school improvement that include some very interesting observations: expansion of opportunities, movement away from age-centered structures, flexible time-tables, and especially strengthening higher education to catch up with the school reform movements.

Democratic Learning: The Challenge to School Effectiveness is something that I have profited from by reading, but not something I will recommend to young students of education. They simply will not understand it in its proper context. I agree with the statement on the back cover that the book is most powerfully aimed at research investigators and school leaders seeking to understand powerful sociological influences that impact their efforts to improve school learning outcomes for students and to impact our democratic societies more significantly. or several years.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 7, 2005, p. 1526-1529
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11418, Date Accessed: 5/22/2022 10:36:56 PM

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About the Author
  • Daniel Elliott
    Azusa Pacific University
    E-mail Author
    DANIEL C. ELLIOTT, Ed.D., has served since 1991 as a member of the faculty for educational leadership at Azusa Pacific University, in Los Angeles County, California. Prior to that Dan has been a teacher of every grade, vice principal, principal, assistant superintendent and superintendent of schools across 25 years in public education. Dan investigates effective schooling, effective teaching, and effective instructional leadership in public and private schools and has written books and chapters in books about each as well as articles in educational publications. His new book, Teaching on Target, is being released by Corwin Press in March 2005. Another of his books, A Change Agentís Playbook: Coaching Teachers for Excellence, is in its fourth edition and has been used in leadership training seminars and in graduate schools throughout California for several years.
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