Schleifer is research director at Public Agenda, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and engagement organization focused on strengthening democracy, building trust and expanding economic opportunity. This is the second in an occasional series.
Rethinking how teachers teach civics and how students learn about democracy has never been more crucial.
Even before the 2020 election, many Americans were concerned about the state of our democracy. Then the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol reinforced the dangers of misinformation and extremism. The new Educating for American Democracy report for teaching civics and history reaffirms the importance of this work and provides a roadmap for pursuing it.
But schools can be more than settings for teaching and learning about civic engagement. Schools can also be places where people put democratic principles into practice. Not only can civics and history be more fully and equitably integrated into curricula and pedagogy, but schools and districts can also implement democratic practices to both improve how schools function and to build civic muscle.
This moment presents an opportunity to reimagine schools as incubators for more participatory forms of governance and decision-making.
Schools and school districts have historically lacked robust systems for teachers to work collaboratively on issues such as curriculum, student discipline and assessment. But a growing body of research shows that when teachers work more collaboratively, student outcomes can improve, teachers can be more satisfied in their jobs and teacher turnover can decrease.
In some schools, democratic processes and shared decision-making are already being put into practice. For example, students in some districts play roles in making decisions about spending through participatory budgeting or participate in student voice programs. Teacher leadership programs in places including Tennessee, Philadelphia and New York City — some of which work in collaboration with unions — provide professional development, coaching and networking so that teachers can have a greater voice in their schools and districts and in education policy. Unions in some districts also play roles in school improvement efforts in partnership with administration, such as in Meriden, Conn. Kentucky law mandates school-based decision-making councils that include teachers, parents and administrators.
What would happen if there were more widespread, sustained mechanisms to give teachers more of a voice in how schools are organized and operate?
Giving teachers more decision-making power could improve their job satisfaction and their willingness to stay in the profession. Retaining more teachers is important since teacher shortages were acute even before the pandemic, and in our recent survey 78 percent of teachers believed the pandemic will make it even more difficult to recruit new people to their profession.
The intense debate over when, whether and how to hold in-person classes during the pandemic may not at first glance feel like an issue for participatory decision-making. But scientific debates are also political debates, and in the case of in-person teaching and learning, they are also very personal debates for teachers, students and parents.
How much space is needed between desks? Do classroom windows open? Can elementary school students keep their masks on? What should we do about lunch? How can students interact with teachers and with each other during science labs or art classes? How can teachers do their best work while keeping themselves safe and healthy?
Our survey found most teachers think they should decide whether to hold in-person classes during the pandemic and that most parents agree. Beyond these concerns about masks, ventilation and distancing, teachers have seen firsthand how students have struggled academically, socially and emotionally during the Covid-19 outbreak -- isolated from friends and often in families affected by lost jobs and reduced incomes, and in too many cases grieving death in their families.
Our survey found both teachers and parents believe it is absolutely essential for K-12 public schools to ensure teachers have the resources they need to help students who have fallen behind academically or are struggling socially and emotionally because of the pandemic.
So what are the teachers' ideas for addressing those challenges in curricula, pedagogy, classroom management and assessment? These are all issues about which they can have a voice as experts in education practices, classrooms, students and communities.
Once the pandemic abates, allowing them to participate in decision-making can be an important way to make schools operate more effectively and democratically, to honor teachers' professional expertise — and put civics lessons into action.
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In study after study and poll after poll, Americans say they do not trust public officials, have little faith in government and are frustrated with the political process. This is reinforced by our latest Yankelovich Democracy Monitor research, which includes a nationally representative survey and is being released Tuesday.
It found 80 percent of Americans view our democracy as either "in crisis" or "facing serious challenges." Four in 10 say the design and structure of our nation's government need significant change no matter whom we elect to represent us. Half feel that racism makes it difficult for some people to participate in civic and political life, including two-thirds of Black Americans and about half of whites and Latinos.
The main question driving our research was: If this is the state of the nation, what kinds of democratic reforms do Americans want?
The new report, "Greater Voice, Greater Impact: Americans' Views on Making Democracy Work for Everyone," found that the democratic reforms Americans favor are the ones that give people the most direct power over decisions — specifically participatory budgeting, ballot initiatives and citizen juries. About half of the people want their local governments to implement each of these reforms, the most common reason being they put more control in the hands of the people.
Though most of these new democratic practices and reforms are mainly local ones, changing the ways that citizens interact with local governments and other community institutions, they can be supported, funded, and encouraged by state and federal governments — and in many other countries, this is how democratic reforms are spreading. In the Democracy Monitor study, we asked whether people wanted similar supports from their federal government. About two-thirds of people who want their local government to implement each of these reforms say they would also support implementing them nationally — meaning that about a third of Americans would support national-scale participatory budgeting, ballot initiatives and citizen juries. While more people are open to trying these democratic reforms in their communities than nationwide, a substantial minority appears ready to try these reforms on a larger scale.
In addition to greater authority and voice, Americans say they want more equitable, deliberative and collaborative relationships with our governments.
For example, our Democracy Monitor study from one year ago found that most Americans think it would help their communities if residents could get together to discuss solutions to local problems with experts present to answer questions.
Obviously, these kinds of meetings are more difficult during a pandemic, but there are other digital engagement tools that serve these same purposes. Three-quarters of Americans say they would be more likely to participate in community problem-solving if public officials are listening to peoples' recommendations.
Above all, Americans are convinced that ordinary people have key roles to play in both solving public problems and fixing democracy itself. Over two-thirds of Americans, both this year and last year, say they believe it's mostly our responsibility to help find solutions – it's not enough to just vote and pay taxes.
Asking people what would compel them to get involved yielded more insights on how Americans think about their relationships with their communities and our governments.
People like solutions that produce more genuine give-and-take between officials and citizens, and that would encourage more volunteerism by citizens. About half say they would be much more likely to get involved in addressing an issue in their local communities if they and their fellow community members could make the final decision about how to address the problem; if elected leaders worked with them to address it; and if they could contribute their skills and experiences to addressing it.
The Yankelovich Democracy Monitor is a multi-year, solutions-focused survey of Americans conducted by our organization in partnership with the Kettering Foundation. For the survey, we contacted a nationally representative sample of 1,000 Americans in the fall of 2018 and a year later.
That means we took our most recent survey before the coronavirus pandemic began and before the death of George Floyd in police custody and the subsequent nationwide protests. While it may be too soon to tell whether and how those events will alter Americans' relationship to democracy in the long term, it is clear that in the short term they have accelerated and intensified the desire for new ways of thinking about public participation and the role of government.
"It takes more than just voting to make democracy work," Public Agenda's co-founder Dan Yankelovich, who died three years ago, once said. "All Americans should be conscious of how precious — and fragile — our democracy is. Participating in making it a more just and effective problem-solving institution is a privilege."
The challenge, of course, is how to build that democracy of equal voices in the midst of a pandemic, at a time of historically low trust in our government and during a highly polarized presidential campaign. Perhaps the first, fundamental, essential step we should take is to listen to what kind of democracy Americans want.