Imagine a school where children and teenagers are accorded all the rights and responsibilities of democratic citizenship; where students truly practice, rather than just read about, the principles of free speech, free association, and freedom to choose their own activities; where students vote on the rules that affect them, and serve on juries to try those accused of violating those rules. What better training than this to prepare students for democratic citizenship? Many people are skeptical that such a school could work. They wonder whether children and teenagers, given such power, would make reasonable decisions, either for the school as an institution or for themselves as individuals. Yet many such schools exist, and by all reasonable measures, they have proven successful. Some of them have existed for decades, and they serve students from as young as four, all the way through the teenage years. Such schools have produced many hundreds of graduates, who have gone on to success in all walks of life.
A democratic school, as the term is used on this site, is a school where students are trusted to take responsibility for their own lives and learning, and for the school community. At such a school, students choose their own activities and associate with whom they please. If courses are offered, students are always free to take them or not. Most such schools accept students across a wide range of ages (commonly age four through the late teens) and do not segregate students by age, so that students can learn from interacting with others who are older and younger than themselves.
“A radical change is going to be needed to get a learning system fit for a democracy. It needs to get away from domination and its endless stream of uninvited teaching. It needs to recognize that, in a democracy, learning by compulsion means indoctrination and that only learning by invitation and choice is education.” Roland Meighan
The staff members at a democratic school are there to help, not direct. They are the adult members of the school community. They bring to the community their experiences, wisdom and long-term commitment to the school and its students. In some democratic schools, the staff are hired and fired by a procedure in which each student and staff member has one vote, so that those who do not serve students’ needs can be voted out. Staff members teach, in the broad sense of the term, but generally don’t call themselves “teachers,” because there is recognition that students learn at least as much from one another—as they play, explore, socialize and work together—as they do from the adults. Democratic schools are governed democratically, usually at weekly school meetings at which each student and staff member has one vote. The school meeting typically legislates all rules of behavior at the school and works out procedures for enforcing them, typically involving a jury composed of school members of all ages. In short, a democratic school is a democratically governed setting for self-directed learning, in which students have the advantage of an age-mixed community of friends and colleagues with whom and from whom to learn.
Democratic schools don’t test students, because they hold that each person’s education is unique and personal, and that the very act of testing interferes with self-motivation and self-direction. Students who wish to apply to a selective college or university, however, commonly study for and take the SAT or ACT as part of their application process, and follow-up studies of graduates suggest that they have no particular difficulty doing this. The best evidence for the educational effectiveness of democratic schools comes from the testimonials of the schools’ graduates and from systematic follow-up studies of graduates. Three quite thorough follow-up studies have been conducted of the graduates of the Sudbury Valley School, which is the largest (and one of the oldest) democratic schools in the United States. The first of these studies, conducted by Boston College researchers, was published in 1986 in the American Journal of Education and is available here. Two other studies were conducted more recently by the school itself and have been published by the Sudbury Valley School Press: Legacy of Trust: Life After the Sudbury Valley Experience and The Pursuit of Happiness: The Lives of Sudbury Valley Alumni.
Taken as a whole, the studies show that the school’s graduates have been highly successful in their higher education (for those who chose that route) and careers. They have gone on to all walks of life that are valued in our society and report that they feel advantaged because of the sense of personal responsibility, self-control, continued zest for learning, and democratic values they acquired at Sudbury Valley. More evidence can be found in a set of 14 short videos called The Lives of Alumni, based on talks given by Sudbury Valley alumni as part of the school’s celebration of its 40th anniversary in 2008. They feature a variety of people, who have gone on in various walks of life, talking about their experiences at the school and their experiences since graduation. (To see the video, click on the arrow in the top row of videos here.) A couple of other research studies have documented a relationship between the opportunity for students’ democratic participation in school and their attitudes toward themselves and toward learning. One of these, known as the Hannam Report, based on a survey of 12 UK schools by former school inspector Derry Hannam, suggests a positive effect of student involvement in school governance on self-esteem, empowerment and motivation to learn. Another relevant study, here, was conducted in Israel and shows that the decline in interest in science that occurs regularly in conventional schools did not occur in democratic schools.