Conflicting conceptions of the purposes of schooling in a democracy.

Author:McMahon, Brenda J.


Living and working in Florida, I was surprised by dialogue concerning the imperative to bring democracy to other countries juxtaposed with rhetoric proclaiming the need to increase accountability in the form of standardization in order to improve schools. What I was not privy to were questions regarding connotations, contradictions, and coherences inherent in the discourse within K-20 institutions. Without serious attention to the meanings of democracy, the purposes of education, or education according to whom and for whom, massive reforms aimed at graduating literate, numerate, productive citizens have been implemented, not only in this state but throughout the Western world. There is pressure on educational institutions to prepare "students for two functions; firstly, as workers for global market economies and, secondly, as citizens for life in democratic societies" (McMahon, 2012, p. 32). As an example, the Florida Department of Education articulates divergent goals. One goal focuses on efficiency and the preparation of a skilled workforce with an emphasis on developing "the proficiency of all students within one seamless, efficient system" (Florida Department of Education, 2009b). Another goal is "for all Florida students to receive a high quality education that will prepare them to be active citizens, critical thinkers, and lifelong learners" (Florida Department of Education, 2009a).

This phenomenological study (Creswell, 2007; Leedy & Ormond, 2005) is an attempt to understand the participants' perceptions of the connections between democracy and purposes of education in a context where democracy is believed to be desirable and yet remains largely unexamined in schools. Consistent with this approach, data were collected from interviews with administrators in K-12 schools. The major research question guiding this research was: How do the participants understand the purposes of education and/or schooling in a democratic society? The participants were asked about the goals articulated by the Department of Education; how they complement or contradict each other; how these impact on their roles as school leaders; and the factors that facilitate and/or hinder the enactment of democratic practices in schools.

Review of Literature

Meanings of democracy are contested, socially constructed, contextual, and evolving, and some serve to mask the roots of existing inequities (Macedo, 2003; Price, 2007). Tensions exist between notions of democracy as a system of government and democracy as a daily struggle toward equity and social justice. Equated with civics, the first sense of democracy is concerned with the rights and responsibilities of citizens, as well as with which citizens have what rights, and may actually serve to reinforce inequities within hegemonic structures. The second conception is consistent with what Price (2007) describes as democracy that is "about hope and commitment, power, possibility and promise" (p. 15). It envisions democracy as a constantly evolving process rather than as an end product.

Influenced by Dewey's (1916) notion of democracy and education, schools are often configured as agents of change that provide a means of social and economic mobility for poor and minoritized populations. This belief in schools' ability to transform individuals and societies is communicated in state and school district commitments to leave no child behind and close achievement gaps. These serve as articulations of equitable and socially just practices for all children. However, even though there is overall agreement that "education is the foundation of democracy, the presence and importance of other outcomes of education that promote the public good are hotly contested matters" (Fusarelli & Young, 2011, p. 93). Conceptions of democracy and the theories and practices of education in a democracy are often expressed and enacted in complimentary and contradictory ways. Helfenbein and Shudak (2009) report that the relationship "between education and democracy, not set in any stone beyond individuals' tenuous historical memory, finds itself under attack" (p. 9). Additionally, Wotherspoon and Schissel (2001) contend that historically, "factors like conformity, competition, knowledge transmission, and responsiveness to economic mandates coexist with commitments to democratic principles of diversity, inclusiveness, innovation, and personal development" (p. 322). These conflicting democratic ideologies in education can be understood within broad themes of conservative or techno-rational, liberal or student-centered, and critical democratic conceptions of democracy and schooling (Horn, 2009; McMahon & Portelli, 2004; Portelli & Solomon, 2001).

The Florida educational goal focusing on efficiency can be seen as representative of conservative and/or liberal principles in that, far from serving as forums for participatory democracy where students' identities as democratic participants are facilitated, "the social and academic practices of public schools mostly develop forms of identity that undercut the kind of self-understanding required for critical democratic citizenship" (Glass, 2005, p. 84). Conservative conceptions of democracy in education envision the purpose of schooling as primarily for cultural capital and are based on a market economy that has been categorized as "minimalist, protectionist, and marginalist" (Portelli & Solomon, 2001, p. 17). Although still not participatory, liberal conceptions of democracy and schooling are more student-centered, and individual growth is juxtaposed with cultural capital as a primary goal of education (Horn, 2009; McMahon & Portelli, 2004; Portelli & Solomon, 2001). Both liberal and conservative notions of democracy in education create climates that McMahon (2012) argues are consistent with schooling for, as opposed to as or in, a democracy and are in keeping with Fusarelli and Young's (2011) contention that, "Discourse is moving away from public education--by the people and for the people toward an emphasis on public education--for the people" (p. 90). By depicting students as products (Murphy, 2001) and disengaging them from the process of their own education, these ideologies cohere with current reform efforts informed by narrow understandings of accountability. These initiatives emphasize efficiency and standardization and create schools "where choice is minimized and where the student is subservient to subject matter [that] is contrary to democratic living and thinking" (Breault, 2003, p. 5).

Depending on its interpretation, the second Florida Department of Education report referenced above could be informed by either liberal or transformative notions of democracy. Fusarelli and Young (2011) contend that "a healthy democracy cannot be sustained by an ailing public education system that fails to educate those most at-risk--a population that constitutes an increasingly large segment of American society" (p. 88). Consistent with a social justice perspective, education for critical democratic transformation "associated with equity, community, creativity, and taking difference seriously" (Portelli & Solomon, 2001, p. 17) is in stark contrast to both conservative and liberal ideologies. This perspective is consistent with life in a pluralistic participatory or public democracy (Dewey, 1916). Critical inquiry is integral to this conception of democratic schooling "whereby students and educators develop knowledge, skills, values, dispositions and actions that are called for by a reconstructive conception of democracy" (McMahon & Portelli, 2004, p. 70).


For this study I conducted semi-structured, digitally recorded interviews with 12 principals (P) and assistant principals (AP) that lasted between 60 and 90 minutes each. The research was carried out with Institutional Review Board approval. Participants were initially referred by doctoral students in an educational leadership program and were people the students believed to be receptive to being interviewed about their understandings of democracy and the purposes of education. Potential interviewees were contacted by email or telephone in order to confirm their interest in being involved in this research and to schedule the time and location for interviews. The participants also recommended other potential interviewees. The following chart (see Table 1) shows the number of African American male (AAM), African American female (AAF), White male (WM), and White female (WF) participants; school report card grades and panels for their current administrative positions; and the number of years of employment in formal education settings.

In keeping with my research questions, using qualitative research methods of data collection allowed me to focus...

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