Public schools are the foundation of democracy. Schools are spaces where we, citizens, learn how to participate in democracy; it is where we become a public. Following American philosopher John Dewey, schools are places where we do much more than learn how to understand and even participate in government. Schools are key spaces for learning how to be in community. The curriculum is itself a living democratic exercise that harnesses the aspirations, interests, needs, and talents of students and teachers in pursuit of the advancement of knowledge, wisdom and human expression.
Students and teachers are the public citizens of their classroom. To learn to become citizens of the world, they must be entrusted with the autonomy to chart their own course of study. The critical inquiries and investigations they negotiate and design will animate an authentic passion for learning that accesses disciplinary thinking, names domination, celebrates the dignity and diversity of expression, and readies students for lives of compassionate engagement in their community and world. The systematic disempowerment of teachers and students prevents them from expressing their highest potentials as citizens and is fundamentally antithetical to democracy.
When schools are re-imagined as laboratories for democracy, real-life problems serve as the texts and contexts of study. Students and teachers have a unique perspective that can be vital not only for reforming schools, but also for addressing broader social conditions.
The position statements that follow are intended to inform actions that increase democratic engagement at various points in public school systems and also in the institutions that affect students, teachers, and schools themselves.
Nature of Public Schools/Reform
Public schools are responsible to the community, not to the marketplace. Education reform must be grounded in the democratic vision that all of society is responsible for educating the next generation and in the crucial role of public schools to help create a democratic, multicultural society. Reform must involve collaboration among educators, parents, and the community. Reform must be based on mutual respect and collaboration among all those involved in public education. Because they have been traditionally marginalized in school reform efforts, parents, in particular, should be brought into the decision- making process at all levels. Collaboration and accountability should be reciprocal communities are responsible to provide schools with necessary resources and schools are responsible to the community at large, not just to the interests of the parents of individual schools. Public schools are a pillar of a functioning democracy and strong public schools are in the best interest of every individual.
Curriculum and Classroom Practice
Students should be at the forefront of the educational experience. Curriculum should be based on respect for students and rooted in their lives, needs, multiple intersectional identities, and experiences, and should help students examine how their own lives are connected with the broader society. Curriculum and instruction should help students pose critical questions about society, examining popular culture, social structures, government actions, and school life, and should move outside the classroom to connect with real world problems. A social justice curriculum includes the lives and perspectives of everyone in society, especially people who are marginalized. It should engage students in a critique of the roots of inequality. As schools become increasingly diverse, teachers must listen to, and learn from, students and their families, and teachers should call on culturally diverse colleagues and community resources for insights into the communities they serve.
Furthermore, effective education goes beyond teaching simply the curriculum and expands to the whole child as humans with social conscience. We support curriculum development and practice in movement, music, and the arts.
All children and all schools must receive adequate resources. Across the country there are huge inequalities in terms of school resources. Money, well-spent, matters. Beyond equality in school funding, fairness means that some students deserve and need extra resources, particularly in communities with fewer financial and material resources and in schools that have been historically under-resourced. Intentional allocation of resources must be a priority if student success is our desired outcome.
Teachers as Professionals
We believe that teachers should be able to act as empowered professionals in their classrooms and in their practice. Good teachers are at the core of schooling and can only support students in their educational journeys when they have time to see students as individual beings. School policy decisions should be made locally and democratically. Teachers need to have a voice in school policies and procedures both locally and system-wide. Curriculum decisions should be made collaboratively at the school level to shape a coherent curricular vision aligned with principles of equity and social justice. Within this framework, teachers should have the flexibility to use their expertise and judgment to develop appropriate curriculum for their classrooms. The school day must include time for teacher reflection, feedback, collaboration and research in preparation for teaching effective lessons. Effective teacher professional development should build upon teachers’ expertise and their drive to impact student success, considering both their teaching experience and professional goals.
Effective teacher evaluations should support and encourage teachers to be critically reflective, rather than punish or control teachers’ professional work. The preponderance of research bears out that merit pay programs tend to create more problems than they solve. Value-added measures tend to create a distorted picture of learning.
Powerful and effective student assessment goes beyond standardized testing and tackles the idea that students can be evaluated holistically. Teachers’ assessments of students need to be recognized as an important part of holistic evaluation. Furthermore, acts of evaluation should be educational in their own right–given the amount of time students spend being assessed, it is necessary that these assessments provide genuine opportunities for student learning and growth.
Teacher Preparation and Continuing Education
The teacher shortages in Richmond are wide ranging and require a variety of solutions to address the issue. RPS should look to successes here in the city, first, to address these issues. The community should invest in quality teacher preparatory programs here in Richmond that are established and show good return before bringing in outside groups or recruiting from outside areas to address challenges such as teacher shortages. District funding should be allocated to continue programs such as Richmond Teacher Residency if state or federal dollars are cut.
We believe school policies, practices, and procedures should support English learners as they develop English language proficiency and as they move (or exit) from direct services to the general education setting for content instruction. The school district should help teachers so they can challenge and support English learners in the classroom and be able to work with families of English learners.
We believe the school district should help parents of English learners understand the school system and support their engagement in their child’s education. Parents should be informed about student placement and progress in the home language if requested. The school district should also help them feel comfortable navigating their child’s school experience and be aware of the resources and opportunities available (e.g. gifted services, counseling. etc.).
We believe English learners should be supported to develop socially and emotionally. This could be through supports and resources for social emotional development as well as trauma and loss but in a culturally sensitive manner.
We believe English learners should have the opportunity to engage in the school experience equitably. The school district should support their enrollment in challenging courses, specialized programs, early childhood education, and extracurricular activities.
Student Safety & Discipline
Schools and classrooms should be spaces where children feel emotionally and physically safe, significant, and cared about, modeling the just and democratic society we envision. We believe the school district should develop clear policies that protect vulnerable students from being persecuted or discriminated against based on their race/ethnicity, religion, gender, citizenship, or political beliefs. We believe it is vital to address the lack of awareness regarding both policies established to protect these vulnerable students, as well as factors that impact their potential for success. For example, schools are considered sensitive locations and are protected by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) policies. However, since most school districts lack guidelines on how to respond to enforcement agents, undocumented students are vulnerable if their immigration status is known.