The Connection between Schools and Democracy

My life in teaching has convinced me of one thing. Americans don’t really understand the connection between what goes on in schools and the health of our democracy. If Americans understood this connection we would do everything we could to strengthen our schools and our teaching force. We would not hesitate to devote resources to schools. We would be totally focused on doing everything we could to make sure our students graduated as critical, free thinkers trained to consider evidence carefully when making decisions.

If we understood the connection between schools and democracy we would recognize that there is no money better spent than that spent to teach students to think. We would stop at nothing to plumb the minds of everyone who works in schools. Our great aim would be to collectively work to figure out how best to raise citizens who are ready to participate thoughtfully in our democracy.

Instead, in our schools we argue over supplies, teacher planning time, professional development, teacher pay. We begrudge our teachers what they need to do their jobs well. We are so focused on issues of resources we rarely dig deep. We paddle about on the surface of education. Our leaders stress over school grades, and standardized testing scores, and how to pay the bills. Our teachers, overworked and over-controlled, leave the profession to seek other pastures before the age of retirement. None of this is a good use of the incredible potential of the adults for whom education is a vocation.

We have a lot at stake. Huge swaths of our electorate vote based on instinct, emotion, and party allegiance rather than on reason – if they vote at all. This means we can easily be taken for a ride. We can be controlled by crooks. This is the moment when we need to rally as a nation. We should slash the defense budget and we should put many more resources into schools.We would do this if we understood the connection between our democracy and education.

I have had a long career in education, and most of the time I have been able to maintain my idealism. I have believed  the nation would move toward a greater respect for the role education plays in our democracy. Lately, partly because of the dismal place reason played in our last election, but more because of my age and my cumulative experiences in schools, I have begun to despair. We show no signs of digging deeper. We show no signs of reassessing our treatment of educators and schools – in fact we continue to degrade the teaching profession.  America, it is time to get a grip.


Kathreen Harrison

About Kathreen Harrison

Kathreen Harrison is a public school teacher in Maine. She has a master’s degree from Bank Street College of Education and a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College. She has worked in a variety of schools in New York and Maine in a number of capacities – French teacher, gifted and talented teacher, elementary school teacher, and curriculum coordinator for island schools. She has lived in Maine for 20 years and has a particular interest in school reform.