Journal of Educational Controversy


Wednesday, March 20, 2013

How Can We Align Educational Reform with the Purpose of a Democratic Education?

In the article, Is This What Democracy Looks Like,” published in our Fall 2011/Winter2012 issue of the Journal of Educational Controversy author Deborah Meier (2012) considers how current educational reforms may actually resist democracy. In this discussion, Meier identifies the purpose of a democratic education as “to prepare all of our students without exception to become members of a smart ruling class, while also living productive, socially useful and fully human lives” and asserts that current reform efforts are ineffective in achieving this purpose. “Democracy Left Behind,” a report from the University of Colorado Boulder by Kenneth R. Howe and David E. Meens (2012), also reveals the ways in which current reform efforts fail to meet the needs of a successful democratic society.

Aligning Educational Reform with a Deliberative Democracy

By, Celina Meza
Editorial Staff, Journal of Educational Controversy

In the report, “Democracy Left Behind” Howe & Meens discuss the consequences of No Child Left Behind (No Child Left Behind [NCLB], 2001) through the framework of Amy Gutmann’s (2004) concept of deliberative democracy. A deliberative democracy is a society in which citizens play an active role in deliberation, critical discussion and decision-making, of the policies that govern them. 

In terms of educational policy, there are three main principles that constrain a deliberative democracy:
  1. Non-repression—freedom from interference and freedom to engage in deliberation. This takes the form of local control in decision-making, in which communities collectively determine the policies that govern them.
  2. Non-discrimination—the prevention of exclusion or denial of entire groups of children, especially in passive repression.
  3. The democratic threshold—a standard of equality in which all children are permitted to an education that prepares them with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary to engage in democratic discussions and decision-making. 

In 1983 a report from the U. S. Department of Education titled “A Nation at Risk” warned that the current public education system was contributing to “a rising tide of mediocrity” (A Nation at Risk, p.1) that threatened the global economic competitiveness of the U. S. Prompted by rhetoric around the perceived achievement crises, in the 1990’s NCLB was presented as a solution to hold local school districts accountable to nation-wide education standards. 

NCLB enacted two policies to hold schools accountable: Standardized testing and public school choice. With standardized testing, all students are tested on the basics in reading, writing and mathematics. Based on student test results, Title 1 funds sanctions and rewards. Districts that do not meet standard are required to provide Supplemental Educational Services (SES). The first step of SES goes to funding third party tutoring (for example, Sylvan Learning Center). Next, districts are encouraged to take corrective action in firing staff and administrators and adopting new curricula. If test scores still don’t rise to standard, districts must offer an alternative school choice. School choice originally grew out of conservative advocacy for local control in the 1960s in the effort of fighting racial desegregation. Now, under NCLB, school choice gives parents the option to exit schools they are unhappy with to attend others and makes schools subject to market competition. In addition, failing schools may be reconstituted as charters under private management.

NCLB did not arise out of concern for closing the equity gap, but rather out of concern for the achievement gap, thereby shifting the focus from helping areas in high need for the sake of equity to raising the nation-wide achievement for the sake of national competitiveness. So it is no surprise that Howe & Meens find that the policies of NCLB fall outside of the principles of a deliberative democracy in a number of ways. 

First, the implementation of standardized testing threatens the principle of non-repression immediately by removing the power of deciding upon standards out of local control. Next, democratic power is taken away from local communities through corrective action under SES when communities cannot determine their own needs. Local control is also threatened by school choice when third party private businesses and philanthropists come in to manage charter schools.

Second, the principle of non-discrimination is threatened by the method of sanctions and rewards based on standardized testing and by exclusion caused by school choice. Unsurprisingly, schools in wealthier areas test higher than schools in low-income areas. It is also true that schools in low-income areas tend to have large populations of historically marginalized groups such as Black and Latino Americans. “Democracy Left Behind” reveals that though urban schools are in disproportionate need of help, they comprised only 27% of the schools that received funds and 90% of the schools that received sanctions. In addition, Howe & Meens suggest “test-based accountability creates a perverse incentive for schools to allow and even encourage low-performing students to leave” (p. 8). The pressure of accountability and inequity of funding has contributed to increased dropouts, suspensions, and expulsions in historically marginalized ethnic groups. Thus, in an effort to close the achievement gap, standardized testing has resulted in passive repression that furthers the equity gap between the historically marginalized and the dominant.  

Though school choice has the potential to foster democracy, the way that school choice is implemented is not democratic: Howe & Meens find that school choice actually exacerbates segregation. When school choice in not uniformly offered in all communities, it does not give parents equal opportunity to exit one school to attend a better one. In addition, the current implementation fails to ensure the protection of marginalized and historically disadvantaged groups. As a consequence, parents with power can figuratively hijack school choice to advance their own children—thus furthering segregation between the historically advantaged and the marginalized.

Third, the democratic threshold is threatened by restriction of curriculum in order to teach to the test and by segregation caused by school choice. With the threat of corrective action under SES, teachers are pressured to design their curricula around what have been called the basics, those topics that will be tested. However, the basics do not cover the knowledge and skills necessary to be an active citizen. For example, a study by the Southern Poverty Law Center concludes, “across the country, state educational standards virtually ignore our civil rights history” (as referenced in Howe & Meens, 2012, p.12), though this part of our history is essential knowledge for all American citizens in a deliberative democracy. In addition, we must have diverse and integrated schools to dialogue across differences and develop the skills and dispositions necessary for democratic deliberation. School choice that leads to segregation limits the democratic potential of the context in which children learn. 

In conclusion, Howe & Meens offer four recommendations to better align educational reform with the purpose of a democratic education:
  1. Provide additional support for staff, parents, and community to get involved in schools in need rather than implementing sanctions.
  2. Focus the curriculum to content and skills necessary for democratic citizenship rather than curriculum that teaches to the test.
  3. Hold accountability through democratic procedures (such as elected school boards), rather than through privatization of public resources in SES and school choice.
  4. Ensure access to equal educational opportunities and diverse context for learning by including enrollment constraints as part of school choice policy. 


Gutmann, A. (1999). Democratic education. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Howe, K. R., & Meens, D. E. (2012). Democracy left behind. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy  Center.

Meier, D. (2012). Is this what democracy looks like? A personal retrospective . Journal of Educational Controversy 6(1), Retrieved from 

National Commission on Excellence in Education (1983). A nation at risk. Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office.

No Child Left Bbehind Act of 2001. 107 P. L. 110. 115 Stat. 1425. 2002 Enacted H.R. 1

Southern Poverty Law Center (2011). Teaching the movement: The state of civil rights education in the United States 2011. Montgomery, AL: Southern Poverty Law Center.