Democracy in Education: The Schools We Want

Successful schools versus powerful economic forces

A wide variety of stakeholders — youth, families, local leaders, and teachers — want school to be successful, and yet there is a disconnect between success as defined by testing and the kind of definitions of success we hear in conversations in the community.

The recent 4J School District Vision 20/20 survey of more than 2,000 local people reinforces our sense of what our community wants for its students. Please read it for yourself: search “4J Vision 20/20 Community Input.”

Here is our vision for what our public schools should be. It is based on our collective 100 years of teaching in 4J, Junction City, North Bend and Creswell and working to reach underserved youth. It is also based on our continuing connection to schools through our friends and colleagues in the classrooms and front offices, through parents we meet and talk with, through our teaching of future teachers at the University of Oregon and Oreogn State, and through our advocacy work with CAPE (Community Alliance for Public Education).

A Community Vision for School Success

We believe successful schools:

• Are in conversation with, and influenced by, the families that attend them. Parents, teachers, principals, and students should have the necessary autonomy to make decisions that work best for all the kids in their school.

• Foster critical and creative thinking skills — authentic learning, with problem-based application in a community context, where rigor and relevance go hand-in-hand. This raises students’ voices and influence within their community.

• Teach skills in communication, presentation, and teamwork — the skills that our children will need in their future learning, in their  college/career path, and in solving the challenging problems that they will encounter as they grow.

• Help students find their passions and learn the skills needed to follow those passions into success as adults who pursue the arts, literature, technology, life-long learning and social skills.

• Prepare students for their roles in a civil society, through civic engagement that teaches our next generation to listen, to debate, to advocate and to reason. We need schools to allow — no, to foster — democratic decision-making to save our democracy.

• Encourage life-long joy in learning, where schools create the perfect mix of joy and challenge. Children and young adults need to develop in a community of learners that includes a diversity of adult role models.

•  Invest in teacher-leaders who are treated like professionals and innovators who have the flexibility to creatively meet the needs of their students.

Competing Vision

We fully recognize that there are other competing visions for our public schools — visions promoted by powerful economic forces that see our children and our schools as nothing more than profit opportunities.  They have driven the testing industrial complex to sell their products and to use test scores to create a narrative of failing public schools in order to justify the public funding of corporate chain charter schools in many states.

This “corporate reform” model has helped to drive art, music and shop programs out of our schools. It has driven students out of our schools, students who have been labeled as “less than” or “not proficient” year after year by tests that, at best, are faulty snapshots of a narrow slice of what a student knows. It is driving creative and passionate teachers out of teaching or into part-time work for health and sanity preservation.

A Call to Action

It’s time to turn this testing-model juggernaut around. We call on all members of our community who share our vision of public education to speak up. What we are currently doing is unfair to our students and to their teachers and principals, who are leaving the profession at ever-increasing rates.

Parents and students have the strongest voices in all of this.  At present, teachers have been silenced out of fear of retribution. As we are witnessing in the student-led resistance to gun violence, the activism of those who are most directly impacted is the most powerful.

Now, more than ever, is the time to opt-out of the testing machine, to insist on a more holistic vision of our schools and to reclaim public education.

Our next generations are depending on us.

Roscoe Caron and Larry Lewin are retired Eugene school district middle school teachers and members of CAPE, which describes its mission as working “to defend public education from the damaging practices of ‘reformers’ and corporate interests.” Ryan Collay, also a former teacher, retired from Oregon State as the director the Science and Math Investigative Learning Experiences (SMILE) Program. CAPE meets first, third and fourth. Wednesdays at Perugino. The website is