Building Bridges for Challenging Oppression & Building Community:
Creating Schools for a Living Democracy

Michael Peterson

An amazing event happened in June of 2000. Some 250 people came together who were concerned about making schools better for children, moving beyond tests, exclusion, and narrow, structured views of teaching. Rather, this group was committed to schooling based on the principles of democracy, schools that involve all children in learning together to explore and impact on their universe,  schools where teachers model the struggle for community and against segregation and oppression. Schools that are rare. 

At the end of it all, however, in reflection some asked, “Were we together? Was there a community of change agents there or separate, parallel issues traveling related but unconnected paths?” This is an important question. 

It’s clear. The numbers don’t lie. Our society is becoming more controlled by fewer people; corporations control much in the national government, communities, states. “What does the business community say?” is a mantra often repeated when schools and other organizations try to figure what to do. In parallel, our society is becoming increasingly segregated, increasingly unequal. The rich truly are getting very much richer, the poor, poorer, and the middle class along losing ground also. 

But what should our communities and society be? Some of us who would have communities become more caring, more equal, more democratic. We’d like to see communities where people take care of one another, where we use our resources to support our most vulnerable members rather than locking them in institutions or jails. We’d like to see a place for all people to be productive, sharing what they have with the community. 

Which direction will be go? Clearly, schools are contested territory in this struggle. Multiple strategies are underway to get us to accept that corporations should rule, that if more people are becoming poorer, it is their fault, that we should not question what is but follow the rules. The politics of control and corporate autocracy are pushed via numerous, simultaneous mechanisms to create schools that will produce obedient, non-questioning employees and citizens. These include: 

  1. Rigid, narrow teaching – phonics only (follow the rules and you can read all you need to know), textbooks, the ‘bunch of facts’ curriculum (rather than real thinking and questioning).
  2. Standardization of the curriculum and assessment -- focus on ‘knowing the facts’, thinking technically but not critically, being able to answer questions, sorting kids, schools, and communities by those who know and those who don’t. 
  3. Segregation – by race, class, culture, language, ability, behavior. We have an amazing array of mechanisms to sort children so we can easily see who is the ‘best and brightest’ and who is to be avoided. Special education classes and schools, alternative schools, classes for ‘gifted’ students assure that we don’t build a real, diverse community where people support one another and critically question interests that seek to divide people. 
  4. Autocratic rule. We say we live in a democracy and most schools say their purpose is to create democratic citizens. However, most schools operate with a top-down, autocratic rule that makes a mockery of these claims. 
Many, many people are concerned about at least one of these issues. Parents and teachers concerned about the segregation of children with disabilities have been building a movement towards inclusive education. A growing number of courageous teachers and parents are challenging the rampant growth of high stakes standardized testing that links scores on dubious examinations to the future of children, the funding of schools, teacher’s salaries, and real estate prices. People of color and other ‘minority’ groups have long fought for recognition and respect for different cultures and ethnic groups, learning across languages. Whole language teachers have built an international movement dedicated to supportive freedom, choice, and empowerment in the learning process.

Yet, those of us whose starting place is one of these agendas don’t necessarily connect with our obvious friends and allies. We remain divided, our challenge is weakened, our capacity for creating new alternatives that challenge this regressive, elitist, divisive vision of the world are minimized.

We desperately need to realize that all these issues are connected. As those pushing narrow teaching, standardized tests, control of children, segregation, and autocracy have created a multi-dimensional, integrated onslaught, so we too must understand that, at their root, all these issues are connected to a common core – a vision of more caring communities and schools that will support that vision. We must see connections if we are to build such schools. We must join together. We must act together. 

Connections are of three essential types: 

1. Conceptual. We must understand intellectually the common bond among our various issues.and build a vision of an alternative to the autocratic, segregated, unequal society being promoted and schools that help us move towards such an alternative. 

2. Relational. Having ideas that connect is one thing. Developing relationships, trust, community with people whose starting place is different than ours is another. Doing so, however, allows us to build our overall base of influence. 

3. Practice and Action. We seek to impact change. Practice and action grow out of our seeing the connections of our issues and developing relationships and a community of change agents with others. 

Conceptual connections: Understanding the common core of our issues. 

In 1997, we developed a framework for building better schools which we call Whole Schooling (See elsewhere in this paper for a description). Among other things, Whole Schooling posits that there are inevitable connections between the way power is used in a school, who goes to school together and who gets ‘sent away’, what is taught and how teaching occurs,  the culture of a school, partnerships with resources outside the school – parents, community, university faculty, and others. At is most basic, we see thrusts towards two types of schooling, each rooted in two very different social purposes – autocratic and democratic schooling. For those of us seeking to build democratic schools, all the issues listed in this box are necessarily, inextricably linked. For us to move forward, we must first see the connections. Let’s explore these through a couple of stories.

Autocratic schooling – designed to separate and sort children. Democratic schooling –designed to promote inclusion, equality, and community. 
  1. Standardized testing. 
  2. Standardized curriculum – driven by disciplines and bunches of facts to be learned.
  3. Rigid, direct instruction.
  4. Exclusion and segregation – by race, class, ability. 
  5. Autocracy.
  1. Authentic assessment. 
  2. Curriculum frameworks that balances government mandates with individual and community interests.
  3. Engaging, authentic teachingInclusive schools – diverse students learning together across ages, gender, class, race, and ability. 
  4. Democracy – in the school and the classroom. 


Cathy and Sean are the parents of Monica, a child with mental retardation. They live in a suburban middle class community. Their school district sends children with their child’s label to a ‘center’ program in a neighboring district. However, they decided they want Monica to attend her neighborhood elementary school with her sister. With much insistence with the principal and special education director, she does but trouble begins at day one. First, the teacher is not accustomed to having a child in the 3rd grade who is just learning letters and can’t read. A couple of years ago, the school began to develop new ways of teaching where kids worked in groups on projects that interested them, read books at their own level. However, this year, with increased pressure to raise the scores on the state standardized test, they are mostly using worksheets that are intended to get kids used to the type of items they will have on the test. Even with adaptations, Monica isn’t doing well. Cathy and Sean tried to talk with the principal and special education director about this situation but they’ve not been very responsive. 

John is an English teacher in Jefferson High School. He has increasingly become concerned about how much time they spend preparing and drilling kids for the state examination. The administration seems almost frantic. He and some other teachers have begun to meet together with a local university professor to try to take action that will show how standardized tests are harmful to students. However, test scores in this upwardly mobile working class community are a big deal. Real estate agencies publish local test scores on the advertizements of local houses for sale. The new principal was just hired to push this agenda even more and has threatened disciplinary action if teachers tell parents about their rights to exempt their children from the state exams. As John and his colleagues study what is going on, they become aware of the various ways that students have been separated and sorted for years, even before the state exams began to put pressure on people – the special education classes down the hall, the special school for girls who have become pregnant, the alternative school for kids who’ve gotten into trouble, the tracked classes and separate classes for students considered gifted and talented. They begin to realized that in many ways they have been co-opted into sorting and segregating kids. 

These vignettes seek to illustrate connections between our starting points. As illustrated in the table, two very clear, very different paradigms are represented – one that seeks to sort and control students socializing them into roles where they have technical competence but are disempowered from questioning and changing their social life; another that seeks to model an inclusive, caring community, where children learn to ask questions and create positive change. The individual specific issues are inextricably linked. 

Relationships for Change and Best Practice: Building a community of change agents.. 

We start from different personal places and needs.  Parents of middle class kids with special needs don’t want their kids excluded and marginalized. Teachers don’t want to spend their time teaching to a test that doesn’t really help kids learn. Parents don’t either. Poor people or members of minority groups want to have opportunities. Since our issues are all linked, however, we can’t move ahead without addressing the overall paradigm of separation and control. To move the direction we want, we don’t have much choice than to build a community for change with people whose position, role, starting interests are different than our own. Parker Palmer in The Courage to Teach describes our coming together as a major decision, a decision to no longer be alone, a decision to make a difference. 

Coming together to build a community for change, where people care for and support one another and commit to engaging in change efforts is difficult. Building a community goes against the many trends in our culture that separate, segment. Building a community for change, by definition, means that we struggle with power structures, seeking to build a new power base among people in a growing movement. Can this be done? We believe it can and have been about such efforts over the last few years.

In 1997, the Rouge Forum and Whole Schooling Consortium began organizing weekend and evening meetings of teachers, parents, university faculty and community members seeking to impact on schools. We obtained funding for the Whole Schooling Research Project and have been trying to understand seven schools in Michigan who are working towards whole schooling principles. We’ve offered two national conferences including the Education Summit in June of 2000. Partners from some 15 states have joined and are gathering people together in other locations throughout the country. For example, in Washington state, a parent has begun organizing a group of parents concerned about inclusive education, standardized testing, and good teaching practices. Out of much dialogue we’re gradually forming a stable cadre of people who know and care about one another, who provide help and support. We’ve had numerous presentations at state and national conferences, inviting people to be a part. At this point, representatives from some 15 states throughout the United States and two other countries are active, developing members of the Whole Schooling Consortium and Rouge Forum. 

An invitation. 

We are continuing this work of building a community for change and we invite others to join with us. Here is some work in progress. 

Working action groups. Teachers, parents, university faculty, and others are meeting in the Detroit area once per month to share and organize actions designed to support better school practices. These include helping one another in local school change initiatives, developing seminars on topics such as standardized testing and inclusive education, organizing conferences. If you are a parent, teacher, faculty member or interested community member, you are invited to join us in building and strengthening these efforts. 

School-based projects. The Whole Schooling Consortium is connecting with a network of schools who are seeking to implement practices associated with the Five Principles of Whole Schooling. We are seeking new ways to expand and strengthen this network including designing a school renewal model based on Whole Schooling. You may want to explore the involvement of your school or a group of teachers in a project to link with the Whole Schooling Consortium. 

If you are interested, contact Michael Peterson,

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