Democratic Schools and The Future of Testing

This is an excerpt from: Stein, Z. (2014). Tipping the scales: social justice and educational measurement. (doctoral dissertation). Harvard University Graduate School of Education. Cambridge, MA. [pdf]

Democracy, education, and the future of testing

 Democratic theory faces up to the fact of difference in our moral ideals of education by looking toward democratic deliberations not only as a means to reconciling those differences, but also as an important part of democratic education…. It makes a democratic virtue out of our inevitable disagreement over educational problems. The democratic virtue, simply stated, is that we can publicly debate educational problems in a way much more likely to increase our understanding of education and each other than if we were to leave the management to schools, as Kant suggests, “to depend entirely on the judgment of enlightened experts.” The policies that result from our democratic deliberations will not always be the right ones, but they will be more enlightened than those that would be made by unaccountable educational experts.

-Amy Gutmann (1999, p. 11)

The lessons learned in this work suggest that schools themselves need to be structured differently if they are to allow for the institutionalization of justice-oriented testing infrastructures. This final section explores these issues. The goal is to sketch the rough outlines of the school cultures and policies that would be needed to enable preferable futures for testing. Importantly, the suggestions offered below are worth adopting for reasons aside from their contribution to justice-oriented testing. But the account here focuses only on why these kinds of reforms are needed as a part of instituting a more just future for testing. Broader arguments in favor of democratizing schools are not discussed, but can be found in most of the citations offered. It will be clear, as it was in the section immediately above, that the account offered here is merely suggestive and evocative, not comprehensive and conclusive. More work needs to be done to justify both the design principles and the democratic forms of school governance that are the focus of this chapter.

There are at least two reasons why justice-oriented testing infrastructures require distinctly democratic forms of school organization and governance. The first concerns the creation of school cultures that are conducive to ongoing scientific research. Science is at its very core a radically democratic undertaking (Dewey 1929; Elgin, 1996). Schools that are undemocratic will be unscientific in so far as they systematically render mute the insights and perspectives of entire stakeholder groups (i.e., teachers and students). The second reason that justice-oriented testing requires a reconfiguration of authority in schools concerns the second and third principles of just institutional measurement—i.e., the need for measurement infrastructures to be relevant and beneficial to everyone requires the institutionalization of means for determining their successes and failures in this regard. Without a way of communicating with those affected by them, the implementation of testing infrastructures will remain insensitive to those it most intimately involves, likely leading to the kinds of injustices discussed in previous chapters.

Comparing democratic decision making to scientific inquiry is a useful way to counteract the common sense idea that democracy is simply a matter of voting and that each vote is equally important. The form of democratic participation that is suggested here as an ideal for school governance is often referred to as deliberative democracy (Habermas, 1996; Gutmann, 1999). Like a scientific community, a deliberative democratic community is guided by “the unforced force of the better argument” and is committed to an un-coerced and free exchange of ideas in pursuit of solutions agreeable to all (Habermas, 1996). This kind of democratic decision-making does not entail that anything a majority happens to think will become policy or that everyone’s opinion is somehow equally valid. Quite the opposite. Like scientific inquiry, deliberative democratic decision-making in schools “both empowers and constrains community control over education” (Gutmann, 1999 p.72). These forms of decision-making aim to promote reasoned debate in public deliberations about topics that are of general interest to the community. Already, deliberative democratic forms of school governance have been theorized, implemented, and studied (Apple & Beane, 1995; Buck & Villines, 2007).

However, this tradition in favor of democratizing schools has overlooked the argument that these forms of school organization are valuable on scientific as well as political grounds. In other words, if the goal is to make schools more scientific, to promote greater and more secure forms of objectivity through testing, and to thus generate usable knowledge about education practice—then the schools should be structured like research communities, which are necessarily characterized by democratic methods of decision-making and deliberation. Of course, the ideal of a scientific community is as abstract as the ideal of a democratic one, and comparisons between the two do break down at various points (e.g., scientists need training before being officially counted as members of a research community). The sociology of science has shown since the 1950s that the working lives of scientists are far from the ideals of scientific practice that grace the pages of textbooks and the early work of philosophers of science. However, this same literature shows that science proceeds by insights that can come from anywhere, and that while the ideal of un-coerced, free deliberation is often far from realized, it nevertheless serves scientists as a reference point that is more than an ideological fiction. That is, while scientific practices may fall short of their ideal, it is nevertheless this ideal that guides practices and that is appealed to when critiquing breaches of practice (e.g., if it is discovered that a competent researcher’s findings were not considered because they were unpopular, the community will see this as a breach of epistemic conduct).

The same cannot be said of most schools. In general, there are not generally accepted ideals of how authority and decision-making ought to be structured in schools. School governance structures range from radically authoritarian to radically egalitarian, and debates rage about what forms are preferable (Apple, 2001). The modest recommendation offered here is that these debates should include concerns about the scientific integrity of school cultures and the related possibilities for justice-oriented testing infrastructures. While discourse focuses on the interface of teacher unionization, educational de-professionalization, and impending school privatization, too few have their eyes on the impact of these trends on the science of education and the future of testing.

Imagine two schools that claim commitments to the science of education and to objective testing. One school is run as a deliberative democracy in which “participatory structures are put in place… [so that] teachers share in the ‘management’ or ‘ownership’ of the school” (Gutmann, 1999, p. 82). Teachers are brought into democratic deliberations about all school-wide policies while also given the power to inform research and test design in collaboration with experts (and in some cases through the acquisition of new expertise). In the other school, teachers are not included in decision-making about school-wide policies and are simply told about major changes, including the implementation of testing infrastructures and research being undertaken by experts with whom they have minimal contact. The question here (for the sake of argument) is not which school will do best in promoting learning, retaining teachers, or other important factors that bear on the success of a school’s culture. The question is simply: Which school would produce better scientific results?

While this is an empirical question for which there is no answer, there is good reason to think it would be the democratically run school. For one, the results would likely be more trustworthy because there would be broad community support for and participation in the research as well a collective understanding of the conditions that secure good scientific results. The undemocratic school, on the other hand, faces all the problems of surveillance and enforcement discussed in Chapters 3 and 5, which lead to the decline of objectivity and the inefficiencies of injustice. The undemocratic school is likely to create inefficiencies in the production of usable scientific knowledge, both due to the decline of objectivity and the disconnect of research from teacher practice. Who knows better than teachers what educational questions deserve scientific attention and which answers are reasonable and likely to be adopted? It is for just these reasons that the need for teachers to be brought in as collaborators in scientific investigations has been a resounding refrain in contemporary educational research (Hinton & Fischer, 2008; NRC, 2001).

There is also the question of which school is more likely to implement a justice-oriented testing infrastructure. Justice-oriented testing requires that tests be relevant and beneficial to everyone. The democratic school will have participatory structures that are sensitive and responsive to the needs of teachers, and would thus be capable of adjusting the properties of the testing infrastructure accordingly, both designing it in light of professed needs and revising it in light of experienced impacts. The undemocratic school would lack these dynamic methods for staying in touch with the needs and experiences of teachers. This is the second reason in favor democratizing schools discussed here: justice requires processes for taking account of the needs and experiences of those who are implicated in testing infrastructures.

Importantly, this requires that the participatory governance structure of schools be expanded to include students and parents. Expanding the participatory structures in this way is a complex topic, but models do exist (Apple & Beane, 1995; Buck & Villines, 2007). Clearly, there are a host of issues, ranging from the immaturity of students (e.g., they don’t know what is good for them yet) to the self-interest and biases of parents (e.g., what most benefits their own children is taken as most important). Issues like these make things more complex, but they are not insurmountable barriers to this form of democratic participation (Gutmann, 1999). The point here is obviously not to settle this debate or to articulate a means for adjudicating the limits of extending democratic authority to students and teachers (although see: ibid.). Rather the goal is to simply point out that justice-oriented testing requires something along these lines. Parents, students, and teachers are those most affected by testing infrastructures, so they must have a role in shaping them. Exactly what this role ought to be requires a great deal more work, and likely a great deal of experimentation and trial-and-error. This section has a much more modest task, which is only to point to the general direction reforms ought to proceed in if justice-oriented testing is to flourish in schools of the future.