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Teaching for Democracy in an Age of Corporatocracy

by Christine E. Sleeter - 2008

Background/Context: A challenge for teachers who support teaching for and about democracy is doing so while being pressed into directives rooted in corporatocracy, a political manifestation of neoliberalism. The accountability movement today, particularly No Child Left Behind, is rooted in much more firmly in corporatocracy than democracy. Democratically minded teachers face two tasks: negotiating increasingly undemocratic systems in order to find space for democratic teaching, and critically examining what democracy is, including gaps between its ideals and actual practice.

Purpose: This article explores the extent to which teachers can enact democratic practice in their classrooms in the current accountability context, and limits that context places on them.

Setting and Participants: Participants included two strong classroom teachers in California, both of whom were teaching English language learners from low-income backgrounds, in schools that did not meet Adequate Yearly Progress targets for 2003-2004.

Research Design and Data Collection: A case-study design was used for this study. Data included six hours of observation in each teacher’s classroom, an hour-long interview with each teacher, papers they had completed while they were students in my graduate courses, and their masters theses.

Conclusions: While the teachers were able to use standards strategically to enact a limited form of democratic teaching, both, particularly the teacher who had more experience with democratic teaching, felt thwarted by accountability pressures. I argue that, while democratically minded teachers can navigate accountability pressures up to a point, No Child Left Behind, rooted in corporatocracy, limits teachers’ ability to enact democratic teaching, particularly in schools not meeting test score targets.

A sixth-grade teacher of English language learners, teaching standards-based content in social studies, was covering the five forms of government included in her text: oligarchy, direct democracy, monarchy, tyranny, and representative democracy. What unfolded over the next 45 minutes illustrates a clash between conflicting paradigms and their implications for teaching.

I had known the teacher, Nancy, since she had enrolled as a graduate student in two of my courses four years earlier. I was visiting her classroom in the context of a study of teachers working with multicultural curriculum in standards-based environments (Sleeter, 2005). Nancy is a White woman with over twenty years of teaching experience. The middle school in which she taught, located in a predominantly White middle- to upper-class neighborhood, had diversified its population by bussing almost half of its students from low-income, very diverse neighborhoods. This year, Nancy’s morning two-hour language arts and social studies block was populated by English language learners who brought 13 languages to her classroom.

As shown later in this article, Nancy is philosophically strongly committed to cultivating democratic citizenship, and had built a classroom environment in which students were invited regularly to consider controversial issues and participate in decision-making. She is passionate about helping students learn to name and address problems they face collectively in their own lives, and had learned to embed standards-based skills in reading and writing within significant, real-world problem-based learning.

I had not been in her classroom for several weeks. On the morning in which the incident I will describe occurred, she informed me that her new principal had directed her to adhere strictly to the state’s content standards and state-adopted text for both language arts and social studies. This morning, she would be starting a unit on ancient Greece by covering the five forms of government presented in her text.

Using an overhead projector, Nancy reviewed definitions of oligarchy, direct democracy, monarchy, tyranny, and representative democracy. She divided students into five groups, assigned one form of government to each group, and directed the groups to read textbook passages about the form of government they were assigned, and then construct a description of it in their own words. After a few minutes, she asked a volunteer from each group to stand and present the group’s work. Initially, she had to ask questions to draw out students’ descriptions. As they talked, she wrote their main ideas on the overhead to assist the class in taking notes, and those who were new to English in following the lesson.

When elaborating on monarchy, Nancy used the term royal blood, a new term to some students. One asked, “How do you get royal blood? I’ve never heard of royal blood, I have type B blood.” She explained that royal blood means you come from a family in charge. A few minutes later, in the context of discussing what representative democracy is, another student observed that President Bush’s father had also been President, so was that royal blood? A moment later, in the context of discussing tyranny, a student wondered whether Arnold Schwarzenegger’s election as governor of California exemplified democracy or tyranny, since he epitomized use of force, and another underscored this point by commenting, “He touched the ladies.” Nancy commented that the students’ observations were interesting, but that people had voted for Bush and for Schwarzenegger. She tried to get students to question why people vote as they do, and to see voting as something we have control over.

Later Nancy commented that these questions would have been worth opening up for consideration: “Just a little comment like Arnold Schwarzenegger, and you just realize, wow, there’s a whole lesson there about political process and democracy, and you know, citizenship, and how we choose our leaders and why, and it’s wonderful that that happens, and that they’re thinking about it and talking about it” (personal communication, January 30, 2004). But doing so would not be viewed positively by members of the school administration, were one of them to drop into her class, so she did not pursue students’ thoughts. In a high-stakes testing context, test score production took precedence over issue exploration.

There is a profound irony in what happened during those 45 minutes. The textbook and content standards Nancy was to follow teaches that the U.S. is based on democracy, and that U.S.-style democracy is the world’s best form of government. But despite that message as well as Nancy’s commitment to participatory democracy, she was told to follow directions from others over what to teach, transmitting content to students they would be able to reproduce on tests. In other words, the context of teaching had become distinctly un-democratic, an irony that was not lost on her. Further, neither the standards nor the textbook offered extensive analytical tools for examining power and decision-making as it actually functions, particularly connections between political processes and the economic structure (Sleeter, 2002).

Teachers who are committed to democratic teaching are faced with two tasks: negotiating increasingly undemocratic systems in order to find space for democratic teaching, and critically examining what democracy is, including gaps between its ideals and actual practice. After distinguishing between democracy and its antithesis “corporatocracy,” I will examine the classroom practice of two teachers to illustrate potentials and limits of democratic teaching in accountability contexts where teachers are under pressure to raise test scores.


Because the U.S. is actively exporting its conception of democracy to the world, one might imagine that its citizens would have a robust conception of what democracy is. But that is not the case. In his recent book First Democracy, Paul Woodruff (2005) observes,

Even educated Americans seem to be confused about democracy, seduced by its doubles, and complacent in their ignorance. When I ask my learned colleagues about democracy, they often say it is ‘majority rule,’ or they speak vaguely of putting matters to a vote, as if this made a decision democratic. Sometimes they simply point to the Constitution of the United States, forgetting that this was written by men who feared government by the people and were trying to keep it at bay (p. 4).

Woodruff examines seven features that are central to democracy, based on an analysis of ancient Athens. They include the following: 1) freedom from tyranny; 2) the rule of law, applied equally to all citizens; 3) harmony (agreement to adhere collectively to the rule of law while simultaneously accepting differences among people); 4) equality among people for purposes of governance; 5) citizen wisdom that is built on human capacity to “perceive, reason, and judge” (p. 154); 6) active debate for reasoning through uncertainties; and 7) general education designed to equip citizens for such participation.

At an abstract level, across the political spectrum one finds broad agreement about these features. From the left, for instance, Beane and Apple (1999) enumerate similar features that enable a democratic way of life, including 1) “open flow of ideas” that enable people to be broadly informed, 2) faith in the “individual and collective capacity of people” to resolve problems, 3) evaluation of ideas and policies through critical reflection, 4) “concern for the welfare of others and the ‘common good,’” 5) “concern for the dignity and rights” of everyone, 6) understanding of democracy as an ongoing process, and 7) organization of social institutions in a way that supports democratic processes and values (p. 7). From the right, Ravitch (2002) proclaims the value of equality and human rights, protection of the right to disagree and debate, the right to vote and to be represented in government, and citizens taking responsibility for sharing burdens and acting for the common good.

Yet, these values and features are given form and substance through very different political paradigms, making it reasonable to query the extent to which political decision-making in the U.S. actually uses democratic processes and institutional structures. Woodruff (2005) argues that U.S. citizens often confuse democracy with three deceptive doubles: voting, majority rule, and elected representation. Voting can be so rigged that it does little more than justify the wishes of tyrants; majority rule negates the rights and interests of minorities; and electing representatives leads to bloc competition for power. Democracy is thwarted when domination takes forms such as above-the-law privilege, coercive power, or “self- and familial-indulgence at the expense of the common good” (Parker, 2003 p. 33). Where one stands on the extent to which the U.S. embodies democracy depends on how one interprets the relationship between democracy, capitalism, and power.

Advocates of capitalism link the ideal of free enterprise with democratic freedoms, extolling the primacy of individualism, property rights, and personal responsibility. As Tom Feeney (2004) noted, the Republican Study Committee of the U.S. Congress adopted six principles for governance, four of which are individual freedom, personal responsibility, less government, and lower taxes. Feeney explains that these principles enable individuals to make creative choices that build prosperity and quality of life. Similarly, writing in 2006 Index of Economic Freedom, an annual publication of the Heritage Foundation, Miles (2006) explains: “In an economically free country, individuals can pretty much determine their natural abilities, figure out how best to use them, and go about their business” (p. 23). The publication itself goes on to support the idea that the more freedom individuals have to use resources as they wish, the more creatively they will be able to generate wealth; further, privatized institutions out-perform public institutions by placing few restrictions on the entrepreneurial talents individuals can bring to bear on problems (Tooley & Dixon, 2006). From this perspective, democracy and prosperity thrive when individuals have maximum liberty to make their own decisions about how to deploy their property and talents.

Critics of capitalism view concentrated wealth as leading to minority control of power, which undermines governance by the people; critics argue that a limited conception of democracy leads people to equate it with the right to vote for representatives, which tacitly has become capitulation to rule by an elite (Apple, 2001; Parker, 2003; Woodruff, 2005). As Boyte (2003) points out, “Traditional citizenship education has been dominated by ‘liberal’ theory” that forefronts the role of the state in balancing rights of individuals against fair distribution of goods and resources, under the rule of law (p. 88). Liberalism, as embodied in the U.S. Constitution, limits the ability of ordinary people to self-govern, centralizing power in the hands of those who presumably “know” what is best for the whole. Critics argue that increasingly the U.S. is governed not through democracy, but rather through a particular form of oligarchy.

While working as an “economic hit man” promoting U.S. foreign policy and corporate interests, John Perkins (2004) coined the term “corporatocracy” to describe the form oligarchy now takes. According to Perkins, corporatocracy involves linking three powerful institutions that are run by a small elite whose members move “easily and often” across institutions: major corporations, government, and major banks (p. 26). Linking these institutions concentrates power, enabling an increasingly powerful elite to build a global empire to which most people in the world are subservient. Reflecting on his role as an economic hit man for the power elite, Perkins explains that, “We were driven by greed rather than by any desire to make life better for the vast majority” of the people in the countries to which he was sent (p. 26). Rooted in the primacy of property rights over human rights, corporatocracy protects the rights of corporations as well as wealthy individuals to determine how resources will be used, by whom, and to what ends.

Corporatocracy thrives under neoliberalism, a reworking of classical liberalism to fit global capitalist expansion. McChesney (2001) describes neoliberalism as “the set of national and international policies that call for business domination of all social affairs with little countervailing force” (p. 2). Neoliberalism assumes that markets, representing free choice, entrepreneurial competition, and personal initiative, have the best potential to solve social problems, and that government should interfere minimally. Ordinary people accept these assumptions, since market freedom is touted as the result of “thousands of years of human social evolution” (Perkins, 2004, p. 216), enabling a better life for the majority of people in the world. As Perkins explains, an unquestioned corollary is “that people who excel at stoking the fires of economic growth should be exalted and rewarded, while those born at the fringes are available for exploitation” (p. 216). Perkins points out that most people do not question these assumptions because most have learned to view a wealthy lifestyle as a highly desirable goal, and increasingly are employed by the corporatocracy. Further, until recently, U.S. citizens have been relatively protected from the impact of corporatocracy’s global empire, as much of the rest of the world has been experiencing it. Trained to see corporatocracy as progress, we shape our conceptions of justice, freedom, liberty, and democracy to fit within the contours of corporatocracy.

Democracy and corporatocracy both value student learning, but define what is to be learned, how, and for what purpose quite differently. The differences rest largely on the extent to which education is seen as serving a public or a private purpose. Let us contrast education for democracy with education for corporatocracy in relationship to four central, persisting questions about schooling (Kliebard, 1982).

1. What purposes should education serve?

2. What is the nature and source of most significant knowledge, and who decides?

3. What is the nature of students and learning, and what teaching processes best promote learning?

4. How should the success of education be judged?

Democratic educators view education as a resource for the public good (Dewey, 1938). A task of education is to help young people learn to connect their own self interest and future with that of a broad, diverse public, and learn to engage productively with this public to address social concerns, including how society’s resources might be distributed most fairly and in accordance with human rights (Deakin, Coates, Taylor, & Ritchie, 2004; Parker, 2003). Democratic educators strive to build “a sense of shared purpose” that is not simply license to pursue one’s “own goals at the expense of others,” on the one hand, nor erasure of community, cultural, and linguistic differences (Beane & Apple, 1999, p. 12), but rather ongoing negotiation of differences.

Under corporatocracy, education is a resource for national global competition and for private gain. According to the Lezlee Westine, President and CEO of TechNet, “We cannot take for granted America’s continued technological and economic preeminence. . . . If we are to maintain our nation’s global leadership in this new era, we must redouble our commitment to innovation” (Business Roundtable, 2005). Education affords credentials (valued differently based on where they were obtained) that can used to purchase entry into the economic sphere. In that sense, education is a profit-generating commodity for which individual students and families compete (Hess, 2001). Education also prepares workers and socializes them to connect their own self-interest and future with those of employers. Education itself can be privatized to support individual and corporate accumulation of profit and power.

Democratic educators believe that there is no single body of knowledge everyone must learn. Rather, multiple ideas, perspectives, and funds of knowledge that originate in diverse communities have value; diverse perspectives and viewpoints should be opened to debate and dialog (Freire, 1973). Diverse funds of knowledge are seen as a social resource to be drawn on, cultivated, and learned from; perspectives from diverse social locations are valued as lenses for examining issues for ethics and justice (Banks, 2004). As Beane and Apple (1999) put it, “Since democracy involves the informed consent of people, a democratic curriculum emphasizes access to a wide range of information and the right of those of varied opinion to have their viewpoints heard,” including non-mainstream points of view that are often silenced (p. 14-15).

Corporatocractic educators value teaching content and skills that are needed by the nation-state and the economy, assuming sufficient consensus within each discipline that experts can codify it. Ravitch (2001), for example, frequently argues that “the public schools should teach a common culture,” based on the presumption that there is consensus about what that common culture is. Teaching everyone the same skills, facts, and discipline-based concepts is intended not only to upgrade the rigor of the curriculum to improve U.S. international standing and prepare young people for the work force (Business Roundtable, 1997), but also to promote patriotism, and cultural and linguistic assimilation (Ravitch, 2001).

For democratic educators, teaching/learning processes that develop critical thinking precede and trump mastery of particular content. Democratic educators value mastery of academic skills and concepts, but believe these must be embedded in thinking; thinking is not something to do later on (Kohn, 1999). Since learning to live and participate in democratic life is inherently social, the teaching/learning process should engage young people with others who are both similar to and different from themselves (Dewey, 1938). In addition, it should engage everyone in learning to produce as well as consume knowledge.

For corporatocracy, teaching/learning processes that emphasize mastery of particular content precede or trump thinking; teaching processes that emphasize problem-solving and solution-generation are characterized as “fuzzy” if they leave students without a sense of correct, factual knowledge.1 Corporatocratic reform proposals conceptualize young people as empty vessels to fill with knowledge, partly because their authors tend to conceptualize schools as businesses, and young people as products. Implicitly, young people are taught to look to “experts” as the primary source of knowledge, and to consume expert knowledge rather than to produce it. Those who master state-approved disciplinary knowledge can become the knowledge creators.

Democratic educators evaluate education based on how well it serves a diverse public, diverse communities, and the public interest. This cannot be directly measured, although it can be judged using multiple indices of community and societal well being, such as the thoughtfulness of its citizens (Meier, 2004). Democratic educators also advocate multiple measures of student learning, valuing diversity among students. Corporatocracy evaluates according to “performance or market share,” seeing “career advancement and financial rewards” as incentives for employees to work toward cost-effective means of reaching measured goals (Hess, 2001). Using standards-based curriculum and tests, the success of education is judged based on how well scores go up, similar to judging the success of business based on increased profit margin.

Drawing from this discussion, several key characteristics of teaching for democracy would include: 1) students considering social issues in relationship to the public good, 2) students using democratic decision-making processes in the classroom, 3) teachers embedding content in critical thinking about real issues, 4) teachers engaging students in multiple perspectives and multiple funds of knowledge, 5) schools affording all students access to high quality education, and 6) students’ cultural and linguistic identities being supported and viewed as legitimate aspects of citizenship.


No Child Left Behind and the broader accountability movement reflect structures and processes of corporatocracy more than those of democracy, obscured somewhat through use of language of democracy and the Civil Rights movement (Emery & Ohanian, 2004). The slogan “Leave no child behind” was first used by Marian Wright Edelman (1996) of the Children’s Defense Fund when, speaking of society’s eroding financial support for children as money shifted increasingly away from social programs and into the military and tax cuts, she implored: “Can America come home before it’s too late to its founding creed of God-given human equality and act to leave no child behind?” The “achievement gap” had long been framed in terms of glaring inequitable opportunities to learn (e.g., Yeakey & Bennett, 1990), including chronic under-funding of schools attended by students of color and from low-income backgrounds, with school funding tied to local tax revenues despite continued neighborhood segregation on the basis of race and class (Berliner, 2005). Other inequities include access to teaching excellence, instructional time, challenging curriculum, up-to-date materials and resources, and resources in students’ primary language (Oakes, Blasi & Rogers, 2004), and high expectations (Hauser-Cram, Sirin & Stipek, 2003; Pang & Sablan, 1998). The language and requirements of No Child Left Behind, however, rather than addressing this broad range of access issues, narrow the focus to school-level gaps in measured outcomes only, implicitly supporting resurgence of the “culture of poverty” for interpreting race and class achievement gaps (Noguera & Akom, 2000).

Created in an ascendancy of corporatocracy, No Child Left Behind makes use of many of its tools and assumptions. Following models of business management, states have been directed to set clear, high standards, districts are to align curriculum to them, and teachers are to teach to them and test student mastery of them. Test results are then to bring consequences, such as whether a student receives a diploma or whether a school receives good or bad publicity. Schools with scores that do not go up, like businesses whose profits do not expand, are subject to closure. While some schools and school leaders have used data on the achievement gap as a tool to improve teaching (e.g., in Fuller & Johnson, 2001; Haycock, 2001; Palmaffy, 1998; Roderick, Jacob & Bryk, 2002; Skrla, Scheurich, Johnson, & Koschoreck, 2001), many others have narrowed curriculum so that teaching to the test substitutes for deeper intellectual inquiry, and concepts that are not tested are simply dropped (Hillocks, 2002; Jones, Jones & Hargrove, 2003; Kohn, 2002; Lipman, 2004; McNeil & Valenzuela, 2001; Stecher, 2001).

No Child Left Behind facilitates the move toward privatization of schooling, which is part of a larger corporatocratic project of privatizing public services (Valenzuela, 2005). For example, the Heritage Foundation concluded that private schools in Third World nations “are of higher quality than the public alternative, achieving higher standards at a fraction of the cost of public education” (Tooley & Dixon, 2006, p. 27). This report went on to recommend expansion of private schooling as a tool for addressing poverty. As a result of No Child Left Behind’s strategy of establishing escalating and unrealistic targets of student performance (Linn, 2005), many states now report increased rather than decreased numbers of failing schools over time (Peterson, 2005), and student drop-out rates are escalating (Barton, 2006). Disproportionately, failing schools are located in impoverished communities (Berliner, 2005). When curriculum in such schools is narrowed to rote learning and test preparation, students’ intellectual growth and ownership over the learning process is stunted, and young people do not learn to read the world critically (Johnson & Johnson, 2002; Lipman, 2004; McNeil & Valenzuela, 2001; Meyer, 2002).

In its shift toward privatization, however, No Child Left Behind facilitates corporate profit-making. Private tutoring is becoming a $2 billion-per-year industry; tutoring costs are market-driven, and tutoring in some cities is sold aggressively to parents, including those who are poor and/or non-English-speaking (Saulny, 2005). Testing revenues are estimated to grow to about $810 million per year by 2006, or $1.9–$5.3 billion between 2002 and 2008. According to the Government Accounting Office, the main beneficiaries are the largest textbook publishing corporations: CTB-McGraw Hill, Harcourt, Pearson, and Houghton-Mifflin (Bracey, 2005; Miner, 2004/2005).

There is need to invigorate a discussion of what schools are for in a society that purports to value democracy. And clearly, there is need to engage in democratic processes to reverse the erosion of democracy and conditions that support engaged learning. As Wood (2004) argued, “Educators, parents, and students need to come together to challenge what is happening to the daily quality of school life for our children as a result of the pressure on testing” (p. 48). Democratically minded teachers have the immediate dilemma of what to do, especially if they work with low-income children.


How can democratically minded teachers navigate an accountability context that is rooted more in corporatocracy than democracy? The remainder of this paper examines the practice of two teachers, drawn from a larger set of a case studies study of eight excellent teachers in California, who had a strong interest in democratic and multicultural teaching (Sleeter, 2005). All of them had been graduate students of mine.

Rita and Nancy (pseudonyms) both taught English language learners from low-income backgrounds in schools that did not meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) targets for 2003-2004 set by No Child Left Behind. Rita taught second grade, and Nancy taught sixth grade. I wanted to find out what they were able to do to enact a vision of engaged, democratic teaching. During 2003-2004, I spent 6 hours observing and taking notes in each of their classrooms. I also tape-recorded an hour-long interview with each teacher, and analyzed papers they had completed in my courses as well as their master’s theses. Both teachers reviewed an earlier draft of this article for accuracy of facts and validity of interpretation.


Rita was a fifth-year second-grade bilingual teacher who exemplified using standards strategically to try to build student achievement and teach for democracy simultaneously. All of her students are of Mexican descent; their families elected to place them in a bilingual classroom. The students’ parents are mostly low-skill laborers, working in agricultural fields or packing plants.

Strategic use of standards means studying and prioritizing the standards to decide which to emphasize and which to deemphasize or even skip. Rita explained that she uses this strategy to find space to go beyond the standards. She uses the grade-level standards as a guide, but expects and teaches more than they require: in both math and language arts, she moves students into parts of the third-grade curriculum, for example, by teaching them to write multiple-paragraph essays rather than one-paragraph essays, and in math to divide with remainders. In order to do this, she carefully studied the standards and adopted texts, prioritizing them to figure out what is key and what she can skip, using experience and staff development as a guide. She commented,

Now, there are some things in the standards that I don’t cover by the end of the year. Some of them I don’t get to cover, there’s just a ton of stuff, if you were to cover every standard, you would be 70 years old by the time I finished with all of them! (interview, February 10, 2004)

Rita views teaching as a mission to empower her students. By “empowerment,” she means both preparing them for college, and also preparing them to speak their minds. She explained:

We’re expecting students to get power in college. College doesn’t—college gives you power, but you must bring it with you, from when you’re little. That’s when I realized, wait a minute! . . . I need to teach my students to be creative people, responsible citizens, independent thinkers, people who speak their minds, all of those things. I need to teach my little ones all of that and more (interview, February 10, 2004).

To empower her students as best she could, she organized her classroom to teach her students to be knowledge producers, independent collaborators, and cross-cultural navigators.

Rita started teaching students to produce books when she realized that too much of the standard instructional program was boring. As a university student, she had come to see herself as an author in courses in which books were created with student writings. Through learning to use computers, produce knowledge, and write for an audience, she had become both engaged and empowered. As a teacher, she realized that she could, in turn, empower her working-class students. As she explained, “I need my kids to know they can be writers” (interview, February 10, 2004).

By her fourth year of teaching, Rita had figured out how to teach them to write and do research using the computer; her class was producing five books per year. She taught students to use Microsoft Word and do Internet research. For example, for a biography project, each child chose a person to research, wrote a page about the person’s life, and inserted a downloaded photo of the person. Most chose pop stars, but some chose people such as presidents, sport stars, and inventors. Rita connected book production with units in her reading/language arts text, so that she could teach standards and knowledge production simultaneously.

Rita organized her classroom into stations (including a computer station), and taught her students to work both independently and collaboratively. Although initially she developed this organizational structure to enable integration of computers into language arts, she then used it as a way of teaching students to help each other and to problem-solve independently. She explained that it required experimentation and persistence to figure out how to make this classroom organization work, since students were not used to working in small groups. She also occasionally invited students to challenge and question authority. As the teacher, she embodied authority in the classroom, and periodically she invited students to critique her and offer input into the operation of the classroom.

Rita viewed it as important that her students embrace their own culture and language, and not succumb to pressures to assimilate. She stressed respect for one’s own family, and taught family and community respect through activities such as interviewing grandparents and learning Aztec dance. She also regarded it as critical that students learn to engage with people who differ from themselves. She was convinced that racial and ethnic minority groups need to learn to collaborate in order to address common concerns together: “If they don’t know about other cultures, if they’re arguing with the Chinese, how are they going to fight about any issue?” (interview, February 10, 2004). As an immigrant from Mexico, it had taken her several years to realize that communities of color face similar issues, and can advocate more strongly together than separately. She was struggling with how teach this broad idea, however, since her school was ethnically fairly homogeneous, and her access to substantive multicultural curriculum materials was limited. She also admitted that, “Most of teachers get caught in this chaos of No Child Left Behind, accountability and you name it, we forget” (interview, February 10, 2004).

Rita was determined, however, to ensure that her students have access to the highest quality of education possible, since she viewed democratic participation as thwarted when children from low-income backgrounds get an inferior education. For that reason, she spent extra time working with parents, locating computers to construct a computer center, and she pushing her second-graders into the third-grade curriculum.

Although Rita was critical of many manifestations of the standards movement—scripted curricula, excessive testing, lack of attention to multicultural education, devaluing of bilingualism, and pressure on teachers, the standards movement supported her conviction that children from low-income homes are capable of full participation in society and need to be prepared accordingly. Further, by resisting prescriptions that she felt worked against engaged teaching (such as following a script), she was able to enact, to some extent, her vision of what it means to teach for democracy. As a result, her students’ test scores were considerably higher than scores of other second-grade teachers teaching similar students, which supported latitude her principal gave her for working with standards strategically.


Discerning readers will note limits in the extent to which Rita enacted democratic teaching. By working strategically with standards, Rita was able to teach critical thinking and knowledge creation, offer low-income students a college-preparatory curriculum, affirm students’ cultural and linguistic identities, and, to a much lesser extent, involve students in collaborative decision-making. The fact that most of her curriculum was determined through top-down decision-making, however, and that her students would need to demonstrate mastery of that curriculum on tests limited the extent to which she was able to engage students in classroom-based decision-making processes.

Nancy had been teaching for over twenty years, and had developed considerable skill in teaching for democracy prior to the standards movement. She describes her teaching goals as both developing academic learning and preparation for democracy. She strongly believes that schools should cultivate citizen participation, and had worked to build a classroom in which students speak up, debate, listen, and think. She had also learned to open up controversial issues, encouraging debate without preaching her own point of view. She was passionate about helping students learn to name and address problems they face collectively in their own lives.

For example, in 2001–2002, she had designed and taught a unit related to ancient Egypt that examined hierarchical versus egalitarian social structures in history and the present, including the student social structure in her school. The unit was connected to the district’s curriculum goals, and it used the adopted social studies and literature texts. But it highlighted analysis of social organization in various contexts, and the role citizens can play to access political participation where they live; it used additional readings in literature and social studies and various activities to engage students in these issues. For her master’s thesis, Nancy worked with students in one of her classes to investigate a school problem regarding how students treat each other, and to generate solutions. The students helped to formulate the research question, design interview and survey questions, gather data, and analyze it; students then proposed solutions. Nancy explained that she involved students in asking questions about equity “because I wanted to bring the issues of democracy and discrimination to the surface in my school environment. I involved my students because I believe, as Freire did, that, ‘as they look at their environment, they will find the autonomy to become the problem solvers of institutional inequality’” (Freire, 1998, p 128 cited by Pipes, 2002, p. 15).

Right after September 11, 2001, Nancy described the personal and political power of students not only in discussing issues, but also in getting to know each other as people in the process:

I was having a debate with my students about whether we should bomb Afghanistan.  The majority of my students said, No, we shouldn’t, because we would be bombing innocent civilians, we would be doing what was done to us, it wouldn’t solve anything, et cetera. But I had two boys who said, Yeah, we just need to bomb them, look what they did to us, we just need to bomb them. And I let the kids dialog and talk, and all the different people tried to convince these boys that they didn’t feel that this was right. Every day I try to create an atmosphere in the classroom where we can have this kind of discussion, where students feel free to disagree respectfully with one another as they explore their ideas. I’m not going to tell the students my own personal opinions . . . I want them to think for themselves. Finally one of the girls said, Well, what about Ahmed? (Ahmed was a Pakistani student who disappeared two days after September 11. I think he went back to Pakistan.) And so the students asked, What about Ahmed? He’s over there. What will happen to him? And those same two boys changed their minds and said, Then we’ve got to come home . . . We shouldn’t bomb them. No great arguments, no amount of rationale would change their minds, only the human connection they had with their friend Ahmed. (interview, October 19, 2001)

This story supported Nancy’s conviction that democracy requires people who can debate, speak their minds and listen, and that young people can learn to build empathy and listen with their hearts as well as their minds, and that knowledge should be selected in a way that helps students learn to hear and understand multiple perspectives: “That’s what I’m doing here, is helping to create, helping to motivate people to be responsible citizens” (interview, January 30, 2004).

In Nancy’s view, teaching for democracy includes offering all students an academically rich curriculum, taught in a way that builds access to college. “My job is to educate. They need to be able to read, they need to be able to write, they need to be able to analyze in order to become effective in society” (interview, January 30, 2004). She also believes that knowledge should come, in part, from the students themselves, as they ask questions and pursue interests that relate to broad curriculum goals. “It’s a two-way street, we all learn from each other,” she explained (interview, January 30, 2004). Prior to passage of No Child Left Behind, Nancy was used to working with textbooks and broad curriculum goals, along with additional resources, to build interdisciplinary thematic curriculum units that connect contemporary issues and students’ questions with history and literature. Her two-hour language arts and social studies bloc lent itself well to this.

Nancy’s previous principal had supported her in what she was doing. However, conditions pushed her toward the more constrained and conventional approach to teaching that was evident the day I watched the incident that opens this article. Those conditions included escalating performance targets that direct administrators to concentrate on test scores (sometimes to the exclusion of other considerations), and the school having a new principal. Nancy had also been challenged for taking some of her students to a school board meeting so they could speak to a controversial local issue the board was considering. For these reasons, Nancy had been directed to stick to the standards and the textbook, and to omit other material that was not in the text or standards.


Teaching for democracy converges with teaching for corporatocracy in one important area: both aim to develop student learning. The assumptions differ about why this is important, what should be learned, and how students learn. But their emphasis on student learning provides limited space in which democratically minded teachers can work by using standards strategically.

Students achieve in schools and classrooms that engage them in well planned, interesting, and complex projects that embed basic skills and content in higher order thinking (Berger, 2003; McCombs, 2003; Taylor, Pearson, Peterson, & Rodriguez, 2003). When the pressure toward teaching to standards and tests results in rote teaching to low levels of thinking, however, students become disengaged. For example, based on a study of over one thousand elementary teachers of students classified as gifted in various parts of the country, Moon, Brighton and Callahan (2003) found that accountability pressures discourage effective classroom practices. They noted that, “A prevalent pattern across classrooms and teachers is the belief that the standards, as operationalized by the state assessment, are the gospel, and most teachers feel unable to deviate from them. In many cases, this belief is validated by school and/or district policies, strictly monitored pacing guides, and/or administrative mandates.” Pressured to teach to tests, teachers substantially reduced their use of projects and other creative teaching strategies, aiming their instruction mainly at their lowest achievers, and leaving much of the rest of the class “bored and disengaged from learning.”

Pedagogical approaches that support student achievement also support teaching for democracy. Teaching for democracy is more, however, than good teaching. Multicultural and democratic educators have long envisaged schools as servants of democratic life helping young people cultivate knowledge, intellectual tools, and experience working across diverse viewpoints and identities to address shared social concerns. As Banks (2004) emphasized, “Students must attain democratic values in school if we ever hope to change the political, social, and economic structures of stratified societies and nation-states because they are the future citizens and leaders” (p. 10). Now, perhaps more than ever before, it is vital to retain and act on this vision.

Currently the economy, particularly at the upper levels, does not have room for everyone, and there is no evidence that closing achievement gaps will close opportunity gaps that have widened for reasons unrelated to student achievement. According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2004), for example, the share of income of the wealthiest one-fifth of households jumped from 44% in 1973 to 50% in 2002, while the share of the bottom one-fifth dropped from 4.2% to 3.5 %. Tax cuts that disproportionately favored the wealthy and elimination or outsourcing of jobs to reduce labor costs partially account for this widening gap. Testing and standardizing knowledge do not close such gaps. What is needed is consciousness-raising on the part of citizens—adults as well as youth—who can mobilize to question and resist this larger redistribution of wealth.

The accountability movement has framed education largely as a commodity for individual consumption rather than as a resource for public good. It is ironic that school knowledge has become exceedingly prescribed and determined at a time when the U.S. is aggressively exporting its version of democracy and personal liberties. While politicians extol U.S. freedoms, teachers like Nancy and Rita—particularly those working with low-income students, students of color, and English language learners—are being told what to teach, sometimes complete with a script to follow. Rita and Nancy illustrate how democratically minded teachers attempt to navigate such pressures. And yet, “individual rights and freedoms come from the very communities that sustain such liberties,” rather than those that suppress them (SooHoo, 2004, p. 207).

Parker (2003) pointed out that, “History gives democracy no advantages” (p. 52). Active democracies (at least those of European origin) have been short-lived. If we were serious about sustaining and developing democracy and justice, we would need to “educate for principled activism” (Parker, p. 52), which places responsibilities on schools. These include the responsibility to expect the best from all students and teach to demanding expectations, but also to engage students in curriculum that respects who they are, what they know, and what they bring. It also includes continuing to deepen teachers’ pedagogical skill working with diverse populations, which goes beyond identifying “best practices” that can then be scaled up (Lee & Luykx, 2005).

Standards, texts, and tests will not raise political consciousness—indeed, they are designed not to. As the example of Nancy’s classroom shows, the standards and texts make available only a limited range of ideas. Directing teachers to follow them blunts critique and questions. Teachers need support in finding spaces to teach for democracy. More importantly, we need to keep alive a vision of participatory democracy for a diverse public, sharpening our own political analysis of the U.S., its institutions, and its place in the world.


1 For example, in 1985, California adopted math framework that “in many ways was the antecedent of the 1989 NCTM [National Council for the Teaching of Mathematics] Standards” (Schoenfeld, 2004, p. 269) in its emphasis on thinking and problem solving. But it was loudly condemned by conservative groups objecting to constructivist pedagogical processes that may allow students to come to incorrect answers through computation errors. Constructivism was caricatured in media as “fuzzy math.”


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 110 Number 1, 2008, p. 139-159
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14562, Date Accessed: 10/20/2021 3:54:51 AM

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About the Author
  • Christine Sleeter
    California State University, Monterey Bay
    CHRISTINE E. SLEETER is Professor Emerita in the College of Professional Studies at California State University, Monterey Bay, where she formerly directed the Institute for Advanced Studies in Education. Her research and teaching focus on anti-racist multicultural education, teacher education, and multicultural curriculum. Her recent publications include Facing Accountability in Education: Democracy and Equity at Risk (Teachers College Press, 2007), Un-Standardizing Curriculum (Teachers College Press, 2005), “ Standardizing Knowledge in a Multicultural Society,” co-authored with J. Stillman and published in 2005 in Curriculum Inquiry, 35(1), 27–46, and “Working an Academically Rigorous Multicultural Program,” co-authored with Hughes, Meador, Whang, Rogers, Blackwell, Laughlin, & Peralta-Nash and published in 2006 in Equity & Excellence in Education, 38(4), 290–299.
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