Alternative schooling has a long history. However, defining alternative schooling is difficult because it necessitates an answer to the question: “alternative to what?” It suggests that there is an accepted schooling archetype from which to differentiate. However, just what that model might be is likely to vary over time and place. In one perspective, alternative schools challenge what Tyack and Tobin, in 1994, referred to as the traditional grammar of schooling as it pertains to conventional forms of schooling developed in Western societies since the Industrial Revolution. Alternative schools challenge the taken-for-granted grammar of schooling variously through their organization, governance structures, curriculum, pedagogy, type of students, and/or particular philosophy. Certain types of alternative schools, including democratic schools, developmental and holistic alternative schools (e.g., Montessori and Waldorf/Steiner), and flexi schools, might offer lessons to the educational mainstream on how to be more inclusive and socially just. However, there are also ways in which they can work against such principles.
Martin Mills and Glenda McGregor
Rampage school gun violence elicits strong public reaction but often results in stop-gap policies that do little to address the violence. Such policies include but are not limited to zero-tolerance discipline, employing school resource officers, installing metal detectors, arming teachers, and active shooter drills. What nearly all of these post-rampage policies share is a desire to secure the school by making the school impenetrable to would be assailants. These policies have an effect on the democratic education in the United States. To this end, the educational and democratic significance of post-rampage policies “harden” schools. Post-rampage schooling of this sort turns children into soldiers and schools into bunkers at the expense of democratic education for the renewal of a democratic society. Thus it is critical to introduce methods and practices that “soften” schools and sustain education for democratic citizenship.
Philip A. Woods
Democratic leadership suggests that leadership can include people rather than treating them simply as followers of a leader. Understanding what this means conceptually, and its implications for practice in schools and other educational settings, raises complex and challenging issues. The concept of democracy has a variety of meanings. The concept of leadership itself is much debated, with increasing attention being given to the idea that in practice it is a distributed and emergent phenomenon involving not only senior leaders but also numerous others who contribute to leadership through everyday interactions. A narrow, minimalist idea of democratic leadership sees it as a style of leadership that a principal or headteacher might adopt so that others, such as staff and students, feel consulted and included. This has limited potential for transforming education. A broader conception, with greater relevance to education, sees democratic leadership as having a much richer and more ambitious focus. A rich perspective of democratic leadership not only promotes power sharing and transforming dialogue that enhances understanding (rather than entrenching people’s existing views and self-interests) but also cultivates holistic learning as rounded, ethical “citizens” of the organization and relational well-being through a community that fosters both belonging and individuality. Democratic leadership that is rich in this way encourages a sense of agency across the school and addresses power differences so the practice of democratic leadership becomes a shared, collaborative process in which all as co-leaders contribute proactively to innovation and the life of the school. It also recognizes the importance of the structural context from which leadership as a complex, distributed phenomenon emerges. Democratic leadership grows from and is expressed through enabling structures, such as a culture that explicitly shows that inclusive participation is valued and institutional spaces and resources that provide opportunities for power sharing, transforming dialogue and the growth of holistic learning and relational well-being. Both (enabling) structures and (participative and empowering) agency are essential features of democratic leadership.
School boards are a fixture of America’s public education system. The vast majority of public school students obtain an education overseen by one of over 13,000 locally elected school boards. Yet scholars and advocates continue to debate the legitimacy, efficacy, and even need for school boards. Supporters argue that school boards are bastions of local control designed to represent citizen values. Critics dismiss school boards as under qualified, overly political, and generally not up to the task of improving student outcomes. Key areas of school board research include board zones of discretion, superintendent relations, the link between school board governance and outcomes, and role of special interest groups in board elections. All of these research areas relate to the larger question of whether school boards are the appropriate model for the oversight of public education.
Education, broadly defined, is cultural transmission. It is the process or set of processes by which each new generation of human beings acquires and builds upon the skills, knowledge, beliefs, values, and lore of the culture into which they are born. Through all but the most recent speck of human history, education was always the responsibility of those being educated. Children come into the world biologically prepared to educate themselves through observing the culture around them and incorporating what they see into their play. Research in hunter-gatherer cultures shows that children in those cultures became educated through their own self-directed exploration and play. In modern cultures, self-directed education is pursued by children in families that adopt the homeschooling approach commonly called “unschooling” and by children enrolled in democratic schools, where they are in charge of their own education. Follow-up studies of “graduates” of unschooling and democratic schooling reveal that this approach to education can be highly effective, in today’s word, if children are provided with an adequate environment for self-education—an environment in which they can interact freely with others across a broad range of ages, can experience first-hand what is most valued in the culture, and can play with, and thereby experiment with, the primary tools of the culture.
There is an integral and reciprocal relationship between democracy and education. Democracy is more than a political system or process, it is also a way of life that requires certain habits and dispositions of citizens, including the need to balance individual rights with commitments and responsibilities toward others. Currently, democracy is under threat, in part because of the shallow and reductive ways it has been taken up in practice. Understanding the historical relationship between democracy and education, particularly how democracy was positioned as part of the development of public schools, as well as current approaches to democratic schooling, can help to revitalize the democratic mission of education. Specifically, schools have an important civic role in cultivating in students the habits and dispositions of citizenship, including how to access information, determine the veracity of claims, think critically, research problems, ask questions, collaborate with others, communicate ideas, and act to improve the world. Curriculum, pedagogy, and organizational structures are unique in democratic schools. Developing an active, inquiry-based curriculum; using a problem-posing pedagogy; and organizing schools such that students develop habits of responsibility and social engagement provide our best hope for revitalizing democracy and ensuring that it is not simply an empty slogan but a rich, participatory, justice-oriented way of life.
Carlos Azcoitia, Karen Glinert Carlson, and Ted Purinton
Effective community school leaders build strong, reciprocal, and sustainable partnerships to support student growth, as well as to strengthen families and communities. Developing authentic alliances among teachers, parents, and community stakeholders creates a climate of trust and positive relationships that strengthens democratic schools. Community schools are an effective way to support families and students, as well as to mobilize the support needed to engage the community in developing effective partnerships. Yet in particular, it is community school leaders who cross traditional role boundaries and build cross-cultural fluency while balancing managerial concerns, navigating politics, dealing with external accountability pressures, and fostering shared accountability. They are the people who make community schools successful, and in turn, their leadership promotes positive growth in areas not traditionally perceived as falling in the domains of education. When school leaders engage in community-organizing strategies to enhance the quality of life in neighborhoods, as well as to empower parents to take active roles in the education of their children, they inspire positive holistic changes within their schools and communities. Successful leaders make this look easy, yet the interplay of a leader’s knowledge base, skill set, and disposition is complex. A developmental model based on knowledge, skills, and dispositions that cultivate reciprocal sustainable partnerships is presented within the context of national leadership and community school standards.