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February 11, 2021

Leading for Democracy: A Vital Agenda for Public School Principals

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How can school leaders help to revitalize democracy in a time of polarization?

LeadershipEngagement
Linda James, an award-winning high school principal in the Southeast, worries about the effects of growing political polarization.* Her school has received recognition in the past for ensuring that 100 percent of eligible students are registered to vote. But now, she agonizes that greater political engagement is "when things fall apart." She is reluctant even to include words like civics and democracy in the school's mission statement because she doesn't think the "very diverse" community would tolerate it, Ms. James explains. "We have extremes on both ends."
In this political moment, Ms. James does not believe it is her job to get students "to understand the other's viewpoints," she tells us. "I don't think anybody's been very good at doing that."
We live in a challenging time for American democracy. Deep fissures in our civic community along with the spread of misinformation undermine our commitment and capacity for public engagement and action. This weakening of our ability to solve problems democratically coincides with crises that demand our collective attention— a global pandemic, an urgent need to address racial injustice, threats to the environment, and more.
Historically, Americans have looked to our public schools to establish democratic commitments and enable young people to engage thoughtfully with societal issues. Yet, in recent decades, preparing students for college and the workplace has garnered more and more attention, often at the expense of civic preparation.  Only about one in three high school principals in a national survey we conducted in 2018 cited "promoting informed participation in civic and community life" as one of their school's top three goals.
Further, even principals who would like their schools to invigorate democracy often are unsure of how to do this amidst growing partisanship and political contention. In recent interviews we conducted, several principals told us that one of the surprising benefits of remote instruction is that they did not have to deal with the in-person political battles that might otherwise have emerged in their school during the 2020 presidential election. Notably, these same principals believe that public schools should support civic education.

Three Ways to Lead for Democracy

How can school leaders help to revitalize democracy? We look for guidance to John Dewey, who took up this question in the late 1930s amidst rising fascism in Europe and reactionary politics at home. In his 1937 speech, "Democracy and Educational Administration," Dewey lifts up three priorities for leadership practice (Boydston, 2008):
  1. School administrators should support participatory classrooms in which all students engage in dialogue and inquiry about vital issues of shared concern. Such practices foster a "democratic faith" that "each individual has something to contribute" (p. 220).
  2. Leaders must create opportunities for students to exercise voice and participate in school governance. Dewey reasoned that "all those who are affected by social institutions must have a share in producing and managing them" (p. 218). Democratic schools should invite young people to share their ideas and to practice the complex work of self-governance.
  3. Leading for democracy entails establishing a democratic culture in which hierarchy and coercion are replaced by "mutual consultation." Dewey spoke of democracy as a "way of life" characterized by communication, collaboration, and respect "in all social relationships" (p. 217, p. 225).
Having spent the last few years conducting interviews with high school principals around the country, we are heartened to find that Dewey's decades-old vision still resonates with many leaders who are working to strengthen democracy in our current moment. Many are doing so in ways that mirror Dewey's priorities. We turn now to three high school principals who lead for democracy through classroom practice, student voice, and school culture.

Leading for Democracy by Supporting Participatory Classrooms

Eric Jasper is a high school principal in a predominantly white, working class suburb in the upper Midwest. He wants his students to become "well-connected and valuable members of the community" who are active in civic life and committed to making "well-informed decisions" on issues of public concern. Principal Jasper looks to classroom instruction to develop such dispositions, encouraging teachers to foster "conversation and debate" on "relevant issues" to motivate student interest.
Though Principal Jasper's community leans Republican, the student body is ideologically diverse, so discussions are often "very spirited." Principal Jasper works with his teachers to set norms and expectations about how to disagree and how to focus on the substance of issues without attacking opponents personally. Principal Jasper tells his teachers that the goal should be empathy and mutual regard.
"We are going to listen to others, and we are going to really acknowledge that others' opinions are good and right to them, whether you agree or not," he tells us.
To deepen engagement in local civic life, Principal Jasper and his staff encourage students to support voter registration efforts and volunteer in electoral campaigns. Some students stuff envelopes, knock on doors, and write letters as an optional assignment in their government class. Principal Jasper sends a letter home to parents and caregivers in advance, letting them know that students have the choice of whether or not to participate.

Even so, he receives some concerned calls, especially when "kids support a candidate their parents do not." But he speaks highly of the benefits that accrue from the "passionate dialogue" that emerges as students come together to share their experiences and talk about the issues that led them to support a particular candidate.

Leading for Democracy Through Student Voice and Governance

Andre Ibrahim is the principal of a high school serving a multi-racial, mixed-income community in New England. He considers himself to be a democratic leader who encourages students to voice their opinions and participate in decision-making and school improvement efforts. “Listening to and honoring” student voices, as Principal Ibrahim says, allows him to acknowledge dissenting viewpoints and develop students’ democratic capabilities. He not only supports young people to “be independent thinkers” who “question everything,” but also aims to have students recognize that they have “a moral responsibility to be respectful of different individuals from different cultural backgrounds and different political groups.”

Principal Ibrahim invites students to approach him with their ideas and concerns. Every day, he receives between 15 and 25 emails from students and meets with others who advocate for changes to school policies and practices. Students are advised to be well prepared for these meetings: “Have your story. Have your evidence, express your disposition, and what kind of change you want to see happen,” Principal Ibrahim tells them. He reminds students that they won’t always get what they want, but if they frame their case well, they will “make the adults really pause and think”—a first step toward change.

Principal Ibrahim’s students also participate in formal governance structures and school improvement initiatives. A principal’s advisory council—made up of low-, middle-, and high-achieving students—convenes regularly to get the pulse of the student body. Students have participated alongside teachers in summer professional development workshops and examined data on the school’s culture and climate and racial inequities in educational outcomes. Some students were so motivated by the data that they presented a workshop for teachers about how different forms of societal oppression shape their school experiences.

Such requests are a learning opportunity for staff as well as students. Before the students were given a “green light” to present to the entire faculty, they had to take their ideas through several stages of feedback, including written comments from Principal Ibrahim and a rigorous Q and A with the administrative team. Ibrahim compares this process to “a dissertation defense.”

Leading for Democracy Through a Democratic School Culture

Anthony Montesa leads a racially diverse school serving an upper middle class Mid-Atlantic suburb that includes a roughly split between registered Democrats and Republicans. When Principal Montesa first came to his school a few years ago, teachers and students were not "talking to each other." Principal Montesa views dialogue as a means of encouraging broader perspectives. To change the climate, he organizes his school in ways that encourage dialogue and collaboration.
Perhaps even more important than classroom opportunities are the programs and extracurricular activities that invite students to exercise voice and contribute to a more inclusive and equitable school environment. They have student mentoring programs, a district equity team, an equity team in every building. They encourage students to participate on student committees and the student council and use student surveys. Students play leadership roles, organizing events, participating in small group discussions with teachers, and teaching other students. These activities provide young people opportunities to learn how to work with others across lines of difference.
"Even if we are making some decisions that maybe they don't agree with, at least they feel they are being heard," says Principal Montesa.
Though Principal Montesa encourages open dialogue and collaborative decision-making, he adopts a different stance when the interests or rights of vulnerable students are at stake. Recently, he overrode the objections of several vocal students who were against a new bathroom access policy designed to protect transgender youth. Such issues that strip away fundamental rights don't allow for majoritarian politics, he says.
There have been a few cases when contentious national political rhetoric has seeped into the classrooms and hallways. Principal Montesa and his staff try to “teach tolerance and respect for different viewpoints” and "hold students accountable when necessary." Montesa points out that they do not "tolerate bullying and harassment for any reason, specifically for someone's political views or personal or ethnic or racial background."

The school treats incidents of hate speech or intolerance as “teachable moments” to address in which educators talk with the students “and just say, ‘Hey, look. If you have something to say, here's how you go about doing it. Here's the right way,’” says Principal Montesa.

Importance Over Ease

In 2016, for the first time since the Pew Research Center began tracking democracy as a topic, a majority of both Democrats and Republicans reported that members of the opposing party "stirred feelings of fear and anger in them." Both students and parents often are fierce partisans, and conflicts can easily arise. It is not a surprise, then, that many educators are tempted to avoid rather than engage with controversial issues. But avoiding such tensions won't make them go away.
The principals we describe above are not overly romantic. They recognize the need to be prepared for inevitable challenges. Teachers need significant support, for example, to facilitate controversial issue discussions. Students need guidance as they negotiate the balance between voicing strongly held opinions and building community in ideologically diverse settings. Parents need to feel included in planning. Nevertheless, some teachers or students will say the wrong thing. And even when teachers handle complex classroom discussions brilliantly, and students work through their differences, some parents are sure to complain. Democracy is messy.
But the alternative is worse. If we want young people to do a better job talking across differences and making well-reasoned arguments, then we need to provide them opportunities to practice when they are in school. And if we want students to appreciate the democratic values of tolerance and inclusion and speak up effectively in the face of injustice, then we need to immerse them within respectful communities in which their voices are heard. Schools are well positioned to provide such opportunities and to do so equitably.
Indeed, we must run our schools as though democracy depends on it. Because, in many significant ways, it does.
*Authors' note: All names for the principals in this article are pseudonyms.
References

Boydston, J. A., Ed. (2008). The later works of John Dewey, Volume 11, 1925–1953. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Pew Research Center. (2016, June 22). Partisanship and political animosity in 2016. 

John Rogers is a professor of education at UCLA. He serves as the faculty director of Center X, which houses UCLA's Teacher Education Program, Principal Leadership Institute, and professional development programs.

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