Democracy Schools — Lessons from Escuela Nueva

Democracy educators in the US have much to learn from the international Escuela Nueva or "New School" movement born in Columbia in the 1970s. This includes the simple -- but hugely disputed --lesson that it is possible to make large scale democratic change from inside the system, working outward to build coalitions.

My conviction grows from research I've done as part of my ongoing Bridging Differences discussion with Deborah Meier on Education Week. In her last blog, "Schools Are Democracy Sites, Not Chain Stores," Meier calls for discussion about what should be a publicly funded school "with democracy in mind."

"A society like ours with vast inequalities of power has trouble even imagining what a full democracy might entail," she writes. "I'm hoping for a conversation that might lead to greater agreement about what kind of democratic processes entitle a school to public funding. Name me a few you'd insist on, Harry (and friends). What's your short list of what shouldn't be allowed or what must be practiced in schools that rest on public resources--in the name of democracy?"

I responded today, December 22, with lessons I see from the Escuela Nueva movement. Meier's question raises related questions. "What is democracy?" Also, "How does the idea of democracy reawaken as an inspiring idea, far more than a trip to the ballot box?" Finally, "How can we achieve democratic change in education on a large scale?"

These are global questions since democracy is threatened around the world and education in many societies, including in the US, is mostly a hypercompetitive race for individual success.

Many are fatalistic, thinking real change just can't happen. I also see a problem in the anti-institutionalism and outside critic stance widespread among academics and intellectuals. Proponents of radical democracy in education from the late Paulo Freire to Henry Giroux and many others today think education is determined by capitalism and we won't get democracy in schools without society-wide revolutionary changes.

That's why the emerging movement for democracy schools called Escuela Nueva, or New School, is so important. It counters fatalism and also the anti-institutional mindset.

We need more details about this but the basic story is that the New School movement was launched in the 1970s by Vicky Colbert working with Beryl Levinger and Oscar Mogollon. Colbert studied at Javeriana University in Bogota and got a fellowship for graduate studies at Stanford. "I was exposed to wonderful theories," Colbert told Sara Hamdan for a New York Times article in 2013, "Children Thrive in Rural Columbia's Flexible Schools." (I'm sure John Dewey was on the list). "When I came back I wanted to work with the poorest of the poor schools, the isolated schools."

She became coordinator of rural schools for the Columbian Department of Education in the 1970s and with Levinger and Mogollon developed the New School model, finding support in rural communities. With growing evidence of its success, it became the main approach for rural education in the country and spread to a number of urban schools.

The New School model is based on democratic decision-making, active learning, and productive community work. Teachers, parents, and students have strong voice. David Kirp reported in another New York Times piece, "Make School a Democracy," last spring on his visit to a school in a low income neighborhood in the town of Armenia, Columbia. The student council was running a radio station, planning what to do with underutilized school spaces, and organizing a day set aside to promote peace.

Hamdan quotes Myriam Mazzo, a teacher in a single room school in Armenia, who says "the student is not afraid to speak or share ideas. He is participative, democratic, knows how to share and work in teams. Most important he can work at his own pace."

Students map their communities and bring their lessons to community members. Teachers use many local resources. Parents are active in the everyday activities of the schools. Their involvement, researchers find, impacts their parenting and their level of community involvement. There are core elements to the New School, such as the idea that teachers are more "guides" than instructors, but the approach adapts to the particulars of local communities and societies.

UNESCO reports the adoption of the approach in 20,000 schools in Columbia. According to the World Bank, students in the New Schools in Columbia outperform better-off students in traditional schools. A UNESCO study found that Columbia, where most rural schools use the model, does the best job of any Latin democracy in educating rural children. The Columbia Department of Education, the Clinton Global Initiative, UNESCO, and many other groups support the approach.

The movement has spread to 40 countries including Brazil, Chile, Nicaragua, Mexico, Uganda, Zambia, and Vietnam. Though New Schools have many resemblances to Scandinavian folk schools, to Jane Addams Hull House, to Dewey's "Schools as Social Centers," and to Central Park East schools in New York and Mission Hill Schools in Boston, the New School approach is largely unknown here. An exception is Kirp, a professor at UC-Berkeley.

From my perspective, the New School model shows that good organizing can produce large scale democratic change from the inside of systems, not simply from the outside. Colbert and her team built coalitions with government as a partner from the outset. The success of this approach challenges a great deal of conventional wisdom, both on the left and in community organizing.

The website for the organizing heart of the movement, Fundacion Escuela Nueva, has a wealth of resources and information. A web search turns up many more.

We need to begin learning. And debating the implications.

remembering Melisto

MellistoThis is Melisto, a daughter of Ktesikrates from Sounion, which is now a day-trip from Athens. I think her name means “Melody,” unless it’s related to the word for “honey.”* Melisto lived for a few years (six, perhaps?) around 340 BCE. The Macedonian King Phillip II was dominating Greece at the time, and his son Alexander was soon to conquer a vast empire. Ktesikrates and perhaps other members of the family were sad enough to lose Melisto that they had a very handsome marble stele carved for her, with her name at the top. She is showing a live bird to her fluffy lapdog and smiling at the results. The figure in her other hand may be a votive object rather than a doll, according to the museum label. A nice little classical building shelters her and announces her name to us, 2,350 years later, in Cambridge, MA.

*Is it from melisma (song) or melisseios (honey)?

New Curricula Teach Deliberation through Historic Decisions

The team at the Kettering Foundation recently shared a fascinating post about a new, innovative set of tools they’re creating to help teachers teach history and deliberation in classrooms that we wanted to share. Kettering and the National Issues Forums Institute are rolling out a set of deliberative decision guides based on historic decisions that shaped US history, and they’re finding success using them in classrooms. Check out the Kettering post below about the project or find the original here.

kfLisa Strahley of SUNY Broome recently shared a video her college and a local middle school produced based on their experience using NIF’s Historic Decisions curricula in their classroom. Historic Decisions issue guides take important decisions from American history and frame them, not as stories of great men making decisions for the country, but in terms of the difficult choices citizens at the time were confronting.

The goal of these issue guides is to allow students to feel the difficulty and power of making such choices and to learn to look at current-day problems with the same lens and sense of agency.

KF program officer Randy Nielson noted, “This video provides a really nice illustration of what political learning looks like. It shows what the subjects of the learning are (the practices of choice making and the effects of making the practices deliberative) and also the feeling of it – the kids were excited, because they had come to a different way of seeing the past, but also because their sense of themselves as actors in a life of choices with other people had changed. They had learned a new way of interacting and they knew it and could feel it. And that self-consciousness was beautifully evident.”

The 1776: What Should We Do? and A New Land: What Kind of Government Should We Have? guides are both available in print or digitally on NIF’s website. Eight more historic issues are currently being framed as part of a research exchange led by KF program officer Joni Doherty.

You can find the original version of this Kettering Foundation blog post at

Maladaptive Perfectionism

Most of my readers should also read this excellent, long article on–basically–IQ, conscientiousness, anxiety, standardized testing, and medical school. Maybe the title should be enough to persuade you: “The Stanford Marshmallow Prison Experiment.” But if not, read this:

There’s a type of joke that I think of as the “white people” joke, although it’s rarely funny and it doesn’t have to be about someone who’s white. The joke is about a mid-40’s housewife who is way too well-educated and bored to be a housewife, and so she tries to find the Grail of healthy food (organic, GMO-free, low acidity, one diet after another) and she plants a garden, and she adopts pets, and she joins nonprofits, and she joins the school board, and she reads every novel on NPR’s end of the year list, and she gets weekly therapy and monthly massages (to about the same effect), and she meditates on the present, and she achieves peace with the past, and she contemplates the future, and everything is feng shui, and yet, despite all this, she feels restless, anxious, unhappy, and she dreams of some sort of vacation.

Or sometimes the joke is about an elderly businessman on his second hair transplant and third cardiac stent and twenty-billionth dollar, and his kids all have grandkids and his wife is deceased, and when he goes out he he orders scotch more expensive than houses, but that isn’t too often—he’s seen enough parties, he’s seen enough people, he has no strong affections, and he works round the clock fighting tooth-and-nail for his billions, because he’s not sure what else, exactly, he’s supposed to be doing.

And the joke, which you hear on forums or sitcoms or in crowded sports bars, goes: “Haha, even though these people are successful, they’re still dissatisfied.”

And I’m here to tell you that this joke is totally backwards. It’s because these people have always been dissatisfied that they achieved success.

If you like that, you’ll probably also enjoy The Last Psychiatrist. Whenever I read Zizek (or indeed many of the French inheritors of Althusser) I think that he’s taken us off the path of melding psychoanalytic insights with marxian political economy. These posts strike me as routing around the damage he’s done. This is the direction I wish philosophy was headed, making sense of the problems at the intersection of our lives, our political economy, and our self-deception.

Reflections on Jury Duty

So, as you may recall, your intrepid blogger got called for jury duty this week. This was my first time being called in all my years, and I was excited to serve. It was, without a doubt, an interesting day, and it really was a wonderful experience seeing the process in action. That being said, however, there was a significant surprise and slight frustration to me, and I want to discuss what that might mean for our own work in civic education.

Arriving at 8am, I was at the jury location until almost 7:30 at night. What was wonderful to see, in the two jury selection call ups that I ended up in, was that so many of my fellow citizens were so excited to be there. Consistently, I heard from them, as they were interrogated by the prosecution and defense counsel, that they believed it was their civic responsibility. And you know what, that made me incredibly happy to hear! Because, really, isn’t it more than just a responsibility? Shouldn’t we see it as a right? The right to serve our fellow citizens in the most important of tasks: the administration of justice?

I actually made it ‘into the box’ at the end of the day, and it was engaging and interesting in being questioned about my own views on certain elements of justice, decision making, and the Constitution. Unfortunately, it was ultimately decided (after 7pm that night) that they would in fact select NONE of us for the jury. I admit that I was really not surprised at that point, because of something that I observed during the process: most of the folks that sat in that jury box with me did not really grasp the importance of the 5th Amendment. What do I mean by this?

The Fifth Amendment states that “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
The most important element of that Fifth Amendment, for this discussion, is this one: nor shall [any person] be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.   Unfortunately, when polled by the opposing counsels, the majority of potential jury members suggested that they would possibly be biased against the defendant if they did not testify. This is an understandable perspective, and a human one, really. We want to hear from those we are making a decision about. Our Constitution, however, expects that we will put aside that desire, that bias, and judge the case on the merits put forward by the prosecution, not the testimony of the defendant. As pointed out during the process, the burden of proof is NOT on the defense. Always, it is on the prosecution, and the defense is under no obligation to smooth the path for them.
To me, this suggests that as civic educators, we may need to overcome what folks have picked up from Law and Order all these years: the idea that the defendant testimony is what will decide guilty or not guilty. We must ensure that our teachers, and our fellow citizens, emphasize and understand the meaning of the Fifth Amendment, and how it protects us all. No citizen should ever be faced with a jury that cannot make a decision, a fair decision, without hearing from the defendant.

There are some good resources for teaching about this most important of amendments out there. Please note that while these are not necessarily aligned with the 7th grade Florida Civics Benchmarks, they remain good resources for instruction. Just, as always, be sure to adapt them to meet your own state standards or benchmarks! Three quality resources are below.

The Five Parts of the Fifth: This, from North Carolina, introduces students to the 5 elements of the Fifth Amendment and engages them in acting out each of the rights therein.

Pleading the Fifth: This, from the Law Related Education folks, is an in depth look at just what this phrase means.

Dickerson V. United States (2000): This lesson, from the Bill of Rights Institute, explores the importance of that right to remain silent.

I would LOVE to hear how you approach the Fifth Amendment with YOUR students! Of course, I also encourage you to check out the resources that we here at the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship have available, gratis!

And oh yes..I cannot wait until the next time I get called to serve! :)

Madness and Biotypes

There’s an interesting article in the most recent issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry. The study, Identification of Distinct Psychosis Biotypes Using Brain-Based Biomarkers, uses bio-markers to identify “three neurobiologically distinct psychosis biotypes.”

As the researchers explain, clinical diagnoses remain “the primary means for classifying psychoses despite considerable evidence that this method incompletely captures biologically meaningful differentiations.” The study aims to classify psychoses more rigorously and accurately by examining the underlying biological factors.

Researchers recruited individuals who had been diagnosed with some form of psychosis, as well as a comparative “healthy” population. They “collected a large panel of biomarkers of known relevance to psychosis and functional brain activity” and “refined a subset of the biomarker panel that differentiated people with psychosis from healthy persons.” Clustering the relevant biomarkers, researchers found three distinct biotypes (“biologically distinctive phenotypes”).

Interestingly, the three biotypes identified “did not respect clinical diagnosis boundaries.” That is: the biological expression of psychoses differed from their clinical diagnosis, highlighting the need to refine current diagnosis techniques.

However, the clusters did reveal a meaningful lens through which to view psychosis. For example, “the biotypes significantly differed in ratings on the Birchwood Social Functioning Scale, which assesses social engagement, psychosocial independence and competence, and occupational success; biotype 1 showed the most psychosocial impairment, and biotype 3 had the least impairment.”

Particularly interesting are the implications of this work:

The biotype outcome provides proof of concept that structural and functional brain biomarker measures can sort individuals with psychosis into groups that are neurobiologically
distinctive and appear biologically meaningful. These outcomes inspire specific theories that could be fruitfully investigated. First, biotypes 1 and 2 should be of greater interest in familial genetic investigations, while perhaps biotype 3 would bemore informative for explorations of environmental correlates of psychosis risk, spontaneous mutations, and/or epigenetic modifications.

This is fascinating research and certainly worthy of further study, but it also raises the haunting specter of modernity. As Gordon Finlayson describes in Habermas: A Very Short Introduction:

There is a sinister aspect to the assumption that science and rationality serve man’s underlying need to manipulate and control external nature: that domination and mastery are very close cousins of rationality. Not only science and technology, but rationality itself is implicated in domination.

James C. Scott emphasizes the difference between the dangerous ideology of “high modernism” and genuine scientific practice in his excellent book, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.

Unlike true scientific scholarship, high modernism was “a faith that borrowed, as it were, the legitimacy of science and technology. It was, accordingly, uncritical, unskeptical, and thus unscientifically optimist about the possibilities for the comprehensive planning of human settlement and production.”

In short, high modernism is the authoritarian imposition of a planned social order, designed by bureaucrats foolish enough fancy themselves as benevolent conquerors of nature.

To be clear, the study itself is not inherently high modernist. Better understanding and diagnosis of psychosis is a worthy scientific goal. But you’ll forgive me if I’m somewhat weary of the profession which considered homosexuality a mental ailment until the 1970s. Social understandings of “mental health” have long been propped up by the scientific understanding of the day – with the currently scientific research miraculously changing to validate social norms.

Michel Foucault perhaps best documents this phenomenon in Madness and Civilization, a brilliant historical account of “madness” as a social construct which shifts to fit the norms of the day.

Perhaps this seems unlikely in our modern world – surely our modern scientific understanding of biology far out shines the dark, half-science of the middle ages. Finding biological underpinnings of madness, biotypes that reveal psychosis, seems, on its face, reassuring: madness can be rationally explained.

Yet it is exactly that reassurance which ought to give us pause. Perhaps we have only found what we wanted to find – irrefutable proof that the mad are somehow different than the healthy, that there is something fundamentally, biologically, different about “them.” And, of course, it’s the implied outcome which should surely give us pause – if we can define the root of their madness, we can at last fix these poor, broken souls.


The Fight for America’s Soul, With Bill Moyers preface

One side pits winners and losers against each other in a race for the American Dream, while the other wonders what might be possible if we work together to form communities, build schools and create a culture of mutual respect.

Harry Boyte was only 19 when he joined Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference - a youthful white North Carolinian working as a field secretary and lieutenant to Dr. King alongside equally young black volunteers who formed the front line of the civil rights movement.'

The experience taught Boyte that "everyday politics" can change history, and he has spent his adult life teaching and proclaiming that the talents of ordinary people - "from the nursing school to the nursing home" - are essential to democracy. He founded the movement Public Achievement which now empowers young people in more than 20 countries and the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the University of Minnesota (now the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College, where he serves as senior scholar in Public Work Philosophy.)

Among his many books my favorites are Everyday Politics: Reconnecting Citizens and Public Life, which one critic said "restores the dignity of real politics" (yes, I will add - even in the Age of Trump), and The Citizen Solution: How You Can Make a Difference. He's in South Africa right now, and I reached out to him for a response to the polarization and vituperation now roiling American politics.

- Bill Moyers
The Fight For America's Soul

Since the beginning, two narratives have warred for the soul of America. One is the "We're Number One" America, in which the American Dream is a competition with few winners and others who bask in their reflected glory. This is the America of land grabs, robber barons and get-rich-quick schemes.

The alternative is the story of democracy in which America is a place of cooperative endeavor where people form associations, build schools, congregations, libraries and towns and fight for "liberty and justice for all."'

The novelist Marilynne Robinson was getting at this alternative in her conversation with President Obama last September in Iowa, reprinted in the New York Review of Books."Democracy," she said, "was something people collectively made." Making democracy created a culture of mutual respect.

I learned this understanding of democracy as a young man working for Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in the civil rights movement. In Hope and History, King's friend and sometime speechwriter Vincent Harding described the movement as "a powerful outcropping of the continuing struggle for the expansion of democracy in the United States." It showed "the deep yearning for a democratic experience that is far more than periodic voting."

Today there are new outcroppings of the democracy story but they do not yet merge into a narrative of democracy as a way of life. "We're Number One" America dominates, coming especially from Republican candidates. It has antecedents.

In 1941, Henry Luce, the publisher of Life and Time magazines, wrote an influential essay called "The American Century." He was scornful of democracy ("Whose Dong Dang, whose Democracy?" he sneered). He saw the American Dream as meaning opportunities for "increasing satisfaction of individuals." And he accused Americans of vacillation in the face of the looming war with the Nazis. "The cure is this: to accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world and in consequence to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit."

Republican candidates today channel Luce. Marco Rubio's campaign theme is, in fact, "A New American Century." Donald Trump pledges to "Make America Great Again" and presents himself as winner-in-chief.

But bashing Republicans isn't going to revitalize the alternative.

Franklin Roosevelt's vice president, Henry Wallace, responded to Henry Luce in a speech, "The Century of the Common Man," in New York, May 8, 1942. Wallace had been a Republican businessman until he became Roosevelt's secretary of agriculture and then vice president. His family had deep roots in the populist farmers' movement in rural Iowa.

Wallace saw the war against fascism as being about democracy, not American dominance. He envisioned an egalitarian democratic post-war world in which colonial empires would be abolished, labor unions would be widespread, poverty would end, and the US would treat others with respect. "We ourselves in the United States are no more a master race than the Nazis," he said. "There can be no privileged peoples."

Wallace's Century of the Common Man drew on the widespread sense of democracy as a way of life built through work that incorporated public meanings and qualities. Citizenship as public work is based on respect for the productive potential of everyone, regardless of income or education, race, religion or partisan belief.

For instance, the men and women participating in programs like the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), involving more than 3 million young men in public-work projects, acted out of practical self-interests, not high ideals. They needed jobs. But their work also had democratic overtones. As people made a commonwealth of public goods, they became a commonwealth of citizens.

The CCC brought people together across differences. As Al Hammer told me in an interview for Building America, a book co-authored with Nan Kari, "The CCC got people like me out into the public. It gave me a chance to meet and work with people different than me from all over the country -- farm boys, city boys, mountain boys, all worked together."

Public work was educative in other ways. C.H. Blanchard observed that "the CCC enrollees feel a part-ownership as citizens in the forest that they have seen improve through the labor of their hands." Participants often developed a strong sense of public purpose. Scott Leavitt of the Forest Service explained that "there has come to the boys of the Corps a dawning understanding of the inspiring and satisfying fact that they are taking an integral and indispensable part in a great program vitally essential to the welfare, possibly even to the ultimate existence, of this country."

Government public-work programs were part of many efforts that activated civic energies during the Great Depression. These ranged from unionization of the auto industry to civil-rights struggles, from cultural work in journalism, film, and theater to rural electrification and projects to halt soil erosion.

These efforts extended far beyond government, but government programs could be catalytic, a pattern displayed in New Deal for the Arts, a National Archives exhibit now online. The exhibit celebrates the cultural work of thousands of writers, sculptors, musicians, photographers, painters and others.

Government cultural work provided jobs but also conveyed a message of hope and collective agency that signaled a shift in conventional wisdom. "The people," seen by intellectuals in the 1920s as the repository of crass materialism and parochialism, were rediscovered as the source of democratic creativity. "The heart and soul of our country is the common man," said Franklin Roosevelt during the 1940 campaign setting the stage for Wallace.

Cultural workers in and out of government conveyed the story of democracy as a way of life, background for Wallace's speech. Subsequently the journalist Ernie Pyle's reports from the front lines of World War II about "GI Joe" generated the wide public perception that the war was about democracy, not superiority. At the end of the war, mainstream commentators regularly called for modesty and expressed appreciation and respect for other nations' contributions.

The culture of democratic respect has eroded. And as work has come to be seen only as a means to the good life and not of value in itself, the public dimensions of work and recognition of the importance of workers have sharply declined. In Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, Susan Faludi describes the changing identities of men, from African-American shipyard workers to television executives and evangelicals, as work has been devalued. They live "in an unfamiliar world where male worth is measured only by participation in a celebrity-driven consumer culture." Public visibility of work that contributes to communities and builds the commonwealth has largely disappeared.

Below the surface of anger and division today, a myriad new stories of "making democracy" are growing again. But in this election, no candidate on his or her own is going to weave them into the democracy story. Bernie Sanders, the most vocal about "revitalizing democracy" by challenging the billionaire class, sticks to the basics. "We know what democracy is supposed to be about," said Sanders in his announcement speech. "It is one person, one vote, with every citizen having an equal say."

The poet Walt Whitman had a different view. "We have frequently printed the word Democracy," he wrote in Democratic Vistas, "Yet I cannot too often repeat that it is a word the real gist of which still sleeps, quite unawakened. It is a great word, whose history remains unwritten."
It is time to recall the greatness of the word democracy. And to reawaken the story.
Published under creative commons. First published on