Participatory Education Engages Students With Real Life

23 11 2011

by: Andrew Freeman

(appeared in Arcata Eye Newspaper, 10/4/11)

An important question we need to be asking ourselves is how democratic are our schools? What does it mean for a school to be democratic? How can a public school be democratic when faced with the burdens of state mandates and standardization?

The Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA) states that the goal of a democratic education is to, “empower young people to be autonomous, responsible members of their community and the larger world.” Furthermore, the concept behind a democratic education is not just to teach young people what real democracy is all about, but rather to embody that as a school community.

As a high school Social Studies instructor, I’ve always found it unfortunate that the state of California does not want us to teach deeply about civic responsibilities, our rights as citizens, and matters of justice until the Senior year of high school. I find it even more disturbing that schools are only allowed one semester to cover all of these topics. Meanwhile the state requires three years of glorified United States History courses (5th, 8th and 11th grade).

The second semester of Social Studies in the Senior year, by the way, is dedicated to economics. The lack of economic education in secondary schools is a whole other travesty which I will save for a later column.

California State Standard 12.2.4 in Social Studies states that students should:

“Understand the obligations of civic-mindedness, including voting, being informed on civic issues, volunteering and performing public service, and serving in the military or alternative service.”

Within the semester long course on civics, this is one of the only standards that addresses what it means to be an active member of society. The other 51 standards expected to be covered by the state in a semester (which is impossible to do well) are absolutely important, but are more focused on understanding the Constitution, how the judicial system operates, and the differences between levels of government.

So, direct instruction on what it means to not just be a part of, but to participate in a democratic society is clearly lacking.

However, the concept of a democratic education goes beyond just learning about what active civic participation looks like. It even goes beyond young people following through on various service or volunteer opportunities in our community. Rather, a democratic education is one where many facets of the educational experience itself are based on democratic principles.

I have tried to make my classes democratic and feel I still have major improvements to make. As soon as I recognize one way by which I have given students in my classes more say over their own education, I realize all of the ways that I am still dictating over them.

For example, I give one of my International Baccalaureate History classes the option of studying one of four regions of the world in depth. Instead of choosing one of the regions that I want to teach (or am most adept at teaching) I spend time in class presenting to them the four options. They engage in a discussion on the options. Finally, I take a vote and whatever course they choose, I will teach. The first two years was History of the Americas, which fortunately, was my strongest suit. The three years after that was a History of the Middle East course. This course challenged me greatly as a teacher. I even shared with the students that this would be difficult for me to teach, but we agreed that we would all learn together. I had great success with those classes. This year they want History of Asia and Oceania. It’s a whole new curriculum for me again, but I am dedicated to this process by which the class chooses what they want, not what I dictate.

Still, this could be argued as undemocratic because while I may be giving them choice, the choices are limited. I met a teacher from a school in Bellingham, Wash., called the Explorations Academy where curriculum topics change annually and are almost completely based on student interest. This teacher told me it was a lot of hard work to keep creating new curricula every year, but that the high level of student engagement that followed was well worth it. Explorations Academy is a private school and therefore has the complete freedom to offer such a program.

Dana Bennis, co-founder and research and policy director of IDEA writes, “Democratic education sees young people not as passive recipients of knowledge, but rather as active co-creators of their own learning. They are not the products of an education system, but rather valued participants in a vibrant learning community.”

So, what would it look like if we allowed students to be active co-creators of their own learning? When I ask young people in Humboldt County what their education would ideally be like, they often mention having more hands on experiences and getting out of the classroom more often and engaging in their community. Interestingly, when I’ve spoken with various business, political and social leaders in our community they mention that they would love to engage more with youth.

This would require, at least in public schools, a major paradigm shift. While the idea of young people learning experientially and engaging with their community is amazing, the reality of making it happen is easier said than done. It will require us asking big questions about the structure of our education system and taking even bigger steps to change it.

I’m interested in exploring the possibilities. Are you? Contact me at to continue the dialogue. Also, learn more about the work IDEA is doing to help schools become more democratic by visiting

Andrew Freeman teaches Social Studies at Northcoast Preparatory and Performing Arts Academy (NPA), an Arcata based publicly funded charter school.

Untangle the Bureaucratic Noose on Education

23 11 2011

by: Andrew Freeman

(appeared in Arcata Eye Newspaper, 8/30/2011

Last week I wrote about my experience at two major education conferences that I attended this summer – the Save Our Schools Conference in Washington, D.C. and the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) Conference in Portland. Drawing on experiences at these two very different gatherings of educators, I summarized what I feel are three major obstacles facing education in the United States today – Bureaucracy, Divisiveness and Fear.

Again you can refer to last week’s article to read my discussion on the stifling effect bureaucratization, and specifically standardization of curriculum and its subsequent high stakes testing to determine school funding and staffing, has had on schools across the nation.

Before addressing the problems in education and working towards better meeting the needs of children, educators need to move beyond patterns of divisiveness and fear and towards courage and partnership.

To begin the discussion of divisiveness and how it plagues education today, let’s consider a parallel with the movement to protect forests here in Humboldt County. Over the years we have seen dozens of heated confrontations between local environmentalists and loggers. Yet the truth is that nobody cares more deeply and passionately about forests, albeit for possibly different reasons, than an environmentalist and a logger. An opportunity for true partnership to create change was missed and a Texas-based corporation orchestrated the raping of our forests for over two decades.

Currently in education, there is too much bickering, fighting over territory and playing the victim. Traditional public school teachers blame charter schools for taking their students away; charter schools claim they are the best way forward; private schools are labeled as elitist. This is the kind of poisonous banter found in many a staff lunchroom throughout America’s schools today. Pointing fingers at each other will not move us forward in any meaningful way.

Even at national conferences that brought educators together, divisiveness was present. In Washington D.C., I found many urban-based public school educators identifying charters and independent schools as the wrong way to go.  In Portland I found a number of alternative school educators standing in a place of self-righteousness, believing that their model of education is the right way to go. In both cases, the conversation was about one way or the other, excluding the possibility that there are numerous ways in which we can provide quality education for our kids.

Just as the logger and environmentalist both care deeply about the forest, the traditional public school educator, the charter school educator, and the independent private school educator all hold the same core belief that our children deserve a high quality education. We share a common ground where the roots go deep.

International business consultant Carl Zaiss teaches that to achieve true partnership we must move beyond “either-or” and into a “both-and” mentality. Under this premise we can still be passionate advocates of our viewpoint while also “communicating powerfully and not creating the resistance that occurs when we make others wrong.”

It is time for educators to stop blaming one another and look at the larger bureaucratic forces at work that are holding our children’s education hostage. We need to recognize that there is not a one size fits all approach to educating our children. There is no panacea. There is only us, and we need to come out of our corners and engage in meaningful dialogue. We all have stories and perspectives, we can learn a lot from one another, and we can be the change.

However, many educators understandingly are afraid to rustle feathers in their schools, districts and communities. Young public school teachers without tenure can be fired without any stated cause. When teachers speak out or take a stance on education they are often branded as working in their own self-interest. Mainstream media puts a lot of energy into coverage of embarrassing stories like the Atlanta cheating scandal, painting images of teachers in back rooms shading in test bubbles late at night, without asking the deeper questions of why they came to such a point of desperation. Most educators are afraid to rock the boat, even though if you speak with them privately they will tell you that the boat is sinking.

To my fellow educators I say we cannot allow fear to hold us back from untangling the bureaucratic noose that is strangling our schools. None of us ever entered this profession to get rich. We entered into this work because we want to make a positive difference in the lives of children. To be bold, I will say that as educators we undertake a sacred obligation to humanity and generations to come. We must not allow fear to obstruct our work.

To parents, students and other supporters of education I say your involvement is critical to effecting real change. While a teacher’s motive for taking a stance can be questioned as in their self-interest, nobody can question the motive of a parent to seek a quality education for their child and nobody can question a student who chooses to take ownership over their own education.

Therefore I encourage all educators, parents and students to begin a dialogue. Let’s embrace our common visions and our differences and work together to positively transform our schools into enlightened centers of learning that reflect our greatest attributes, hopes and vision.

I invite local educators, parents, students and community members interested in solutions for improving education to begin a local dialogue. Contact me at

Andrew Freeman teaches Social Studies at Northcoast Preparatory and Performing Arts Academy (NPA), an Arcata based publicly funded charter school.

Bureaucratization, Fear and Divisiveness are Hobbling Education

23 11 2011

by: Andrew Freeman

(appeared in Arcata Eye Newspaper, 8/23/11)

For seven years I have taught in our public education system. I consider myself and all teachers to be activists. Our work is important for we are helping to shape the lives of what we as a society hold most precious – our children. With this in mind I recognize that my work as a teacher goes beyond what I do in my own classroom and school. There are forces at work shaping our nation’s education policy, which in turn will craft what we will be as a society in the years, decades and centuries to come.

This summer I embarked on a journey to find the pulse among the currents of education philosophy and policy in America. My travels first took me to the Save Our Schools National Conference and March in Washington D.C. and later to the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) Conference in Portland, Oregon.

In this and next week’s column I will provide a report of what I observed and learned at these events. I will then outline what I found to be the three biggest issues facing education in America today and what people are doing about them.

Save Our Schools (SOS) is a grassroots coalition of public school advocates who have the goals of equitable funding for all public schools, an end to high stakes standardized testing, and teacher, family, and community leadership in forming public education policies and curriculum. However, the way forward to reach these goals was heavily debated at the conference.

Often I felt that we were having the wrong conversations at SOS. For example, while we all could agree that public schools should receive equitable funding, there was a lot of time spent lambasting alternative schools, private schools, and the ever emerging quasi private/public charter schools. While the concerns about privatization in public education are real – we must not allow private corporations to use their contributions to influence curriculum – we also have examples of non-profit organizations, like Bill Gates’ Foundation, giving money to fund innovative charter programs. Karran Harper Royal, co-founder of Parents Across America, takes a strong stand against charters which she claims in New Orleans screen admissions, push out “underperforming” students, and neglect traditional neighborhood schools. This is certainly unfair and problematic. However taking unwavering stands against charters is not going to deliver equity; we must instead demand more equal funding for all schools.

This is one example of the many conversations that took place at SOS. Despite our differences, 3,000 of us marched together around the White House sharing a belief in the importance of quality education and a love for our children.

I left my experience with the rank and file public school people to enter the world of alternative education at AERO in Portland. Here was an eccentric gathering of those working on the fringes of and outside the system. I was inspired hearing about the work of those in Free Schools, Montessori, Sudsbury, Waldorf, Democracy Schools, Peace Schools, Farm Schools and even Un-Schools! After being in DC learning about the major problems  facing our nation’s public schools, it was refreshing to be among those who by and large have avoided stifling standardization and top-down regulations and instead have manifested thriving models of what education can be when school creation is up to parents, students, educators and local communities.

Based on my experiences at both conferences, I summarized what I found to be the three most pressing issues facing education today: Bureaucratization, Divisiveness and Fear.

Bureaucratization of education is the major factor that pulls educators away from providing the best service they can for our children. While there are many facets to the bureaucratization issue, the aspect I wish to focus on is standardization of curriculum and the subsequent high stakes standardized tests.

One area we all had common ground on at SOS and AERO was a call for an end to high stakes standardized testing. The testing mania, which links funding to school wide performance, was unleashed by the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation. Phil and Joan Harris, education researchers and authors of The Myths of Standardized Tests, claim that student knowledge, achievement, and learning cannot be assessed by a measurement of correct and incorrect responses to a limited number of questions on a standardized test. Consequently, test scores do not provide citizens with the information they need to know about public schools and their teachers. The Harris’, use quantitative analysis to prove false the assumptions behind testing. However, most educators know instinctively that student achievement and learning must be assessed using both quantitative and qualitative measures. Even then, there is no absolute value that can be placed on something as profound, complex and cosmic as a human being’s knowledge.

The testing regimen has resulted in school administrators pushing teachers to prepare students for the test, it has caused teachers to narrow the curriculum to cover test-relevant information, or “teach to the test”. Finally, it has short-changed our children from receiving the holistic, creative, enlightening, and empowering education they all deserve.

There is a clear majority opposed to standardized testing and it’s time to exercise our democratic rights and put an end to it. I encourage readers to explore the work of Angela Engel, author of Seeds of Tomorrow , who is lobbying at high levels of government to end standardized testing; the Bartleby Project, a grassroots effort encouraging students to take a stand; and Students Against Testing.

Finally, I invite local educators, parents, students and community members interested in solutions for improving our children’s education to begin a local dialogue. Contact me at

Next week I will discuss what I found to be the two other major problems in education today – divisiveness and fear – and how we need to shift towards finding common ground, respecting differences and moving forward towards positive change.

Andrew Freeman teaches Social Studies at Northcoast Preparatory and Performing Arts Academy (NPA), an Arcata based publicly funded charter school