Youth-Adult Relationship Spectrum

Youth-Adult Relationship Spectrum


I have seen three primary ways adults relate to youth, no matter whether the relationship is parenting, teaching, or policing. The first way is over-permissiveness; the second is responsible; and over-restrictive. Before I explain these, its important to remind you that I’m an adult and these are my opinions; a young person and other adults surely will see things differently.

Over-permissive relationships between children, youth and adults allow young people to do whatever they want, whenever they want, wherever and however they want. Disregarding the longer term effects of how young people relate to adults, over-permissiveness can incapacitate young peoples’ ability to successfully relate to the broader society around them. By allowing too much freedom, these relationships give children and youth “just enough rope to hang themselves” by extinguishing their inherent away their sense of purpose and belonging throughout the larger society in which we all belong. Based in a well-meaning notion of equality between young people and adults, these relationships conveniently relieve adults of the burden of responsibility in parts or all throughout the lives of young people. They often happen to encourage freedom.

Over-restrictive relationships between young people and adults override the decision-making capabilities of children and youth and disable their inherent creativity in order to assure adults’ sense of authority, protection, and ultimately, ownership over young people. By discouraging young people from experiencing the freedom and ability they need in their natural learning process as well as throughout their social and familial worlds, these relationships can take away enthusiasm and unfettered joy, only to replace it with rigidity and structure. Over-restrictive relationships enforce inequality between children and youth, and occur by adults enforcing their power with heavy-handed education, tight schedules and severe rules, and harsh punishment. They often happen to encourage safety.

Responsible relationships between children, youth and adults are based on trust, mutual respect, communication, and meaningful interactions. Positioning each person as an evolving member of a broader society, they identify roles, opportunities and outcomes that benefit every person in uniquely appropriate ways while holding the greater good ahead of individualism. These relationships occur when adults consciously decide to foster equity throughout the lives of young people by intentionally acknowledging each others’ according abilities, fostering deliberate opportunities and continually embracing the evolving capacities of children and youth throughout their lives, starting when they are infants. Responsible relationships nurture appropriate attachment and encourage interdependence between young people and adults. They often happen to foster democratic sensibilities.

I have not met one adult who is constantly and consistently one of these ways with all young people all of the time. This isn’t meant to provide a puzzle for people to fit together the individual pieces, either. Instead, by showing a spectrum I meant to show that each of us can be any of these at many points throughout our lives.

Share your thoughts in the comments section!

Public Schools Aren’t Democratic

Being the autocratic, adultcentric environments that they are, public schools today are not democratic. They are existent within a society operating on democratic methods, and they (mostly) publicly allow every young person to enroll in them. However, on the whole, public schools are not led in a democratic fashion, are devoid of democratic teaching methods, and do not teach democracy in a systemic, deliberate fashion.

School leaders and educators routinely tell students that schools aren’t democracies, too. That pronouncement alone is terrible. It makes student voice, student leadership, and student engagement activities something other than democratic: tokenistic and belittling, some students see through them and are justly cynical or resistant to participating.    Because of this, the argument that student voice is democracy in action is flawed at its core. In my experience working with hundreds of schools across the US and Canada, I’ve found that, relatively speaking, students who are chosen to share their voices in school leadership are generally not representative of the majority of learners. They generally have privileges that others don’t, including the academic achievement and fiscal background needed to allow them to participate, and to ensure their successful experience sharing student voice.

These students are generally what I call “traditional student voice”; that is, their voices are generally predictable and acceptable to adults. Through gross over-exaggerations about schools and the inability of education to meet their needs, many student voice representatives today don’t even address the basic concerns of low-achieving students, students of color, or low-income students in schools today. To the chagrin of many of my compatriots in the student voice movement, I regularly see and admit that the majority of traditional student voice representatives merely toe the corporate education agenda sold by mainstream media and the vast majority of politicians (as do their parents).

While all students’ voices have value for improving schools and transforming education, when adults hold up one set of students’ voices and make them reflective or representative of the whole education system that it becomes problematic. That’s true of nontraditional student voice as well as traditional student voice. While some educators pedestal convenient student voice, there are nonprofit organization programs that do the same with inconvenient student voice. They routinely uplift the voices of students of color, low-income students, underachieving learners, and others, offering those students’ critiques as a singular focus for school improvement.

In reality, this isn’t democracy either, as both position one group of students above others. While I readily acknowledge that all student voice is not created equal, I believe that in democracy all people ARE created equal. That’s an essential distinction, and shows why public schools aren’t democratic.

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Adultism in Democratic Education

My child has attended learning environments operating with democratic education principles for the last seven years, and as her dad I believe I’m a partner with her in her learning. As a line-level youth worker, I worked to infuse democratic education principles into my own practice for more than a decade, and as a consultant, I have assisted more than 100 K-12 schools across the US and Canada as they’ve wrestled with these principles. As a student myself, my bachelors degree is from The Evergreen State College, a widely renowned democratic education institution. For the last several years, I’ve been an advisor to the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA), and have worked to help grow this movement nationally in many ways, including presenting several workshops at the International Democratic Education Conference (IDEC).

It is from this place of warm interaction, deep investment, and soul-filled appreciation that I share my concerns about adultism in democratic education.

Goals, teaching styles, rules, curriculum, budgeting, building design, behavior expectations… All of these things are determined by adults, for students, throughout schools and nonprofits. Even in well-meaning democratic learning environments, adultism often runs rampant and unchecked. Like the wildly fast undercurrent of a river that looks slow and smooth on the surface, adultism is deep throughout work done by adults for children and youth.

When they read this, some people will automatically dismiss it as an attempt to cast aspersions on their work. I don’t mean to demonize anyone. Instead, I want us to simply acknowledge the basis from which so much of this work operates, including democratic education in all its myriad forms. Understanding this basis can help people attempting to work within democratic education to truly create democratized spaces that are so woefully absent in our society today.

Where Adultism Surfaces in Democratic Education

It is important to recognize that there is no one, single, androgynous form of democratic education that all people everywhere adhere to. If my experience with IDEA has taught me anything, its that democratic education means many things to many people. Inside of that reality, I don’t want people to harbor the sentiment that simply calling something democratic education automatically means it is safe, free, and/or holistic. Just that notion alone makes democratic education adultist, as it reflects an adults’ perception of what young people want, rather than asking fully informed, fully invested young people what they want.

In some forms of democratic education, adults create specially isolated spaces for kids to “learn in freedom”. This is adultist on many levels. One reason for this is that learning environments that isolate young people from “real world” interactions by creating isolated experiences where young people have the capability to do whatever they want in the name of learning are actually expressing the will of adults. In our society today, we are installed with an inalienable number of rights because of our age. Intending to rectify a perception of diminished rights for youth, there are educators both in schools and outside schools who seek to create rebalance by instilling similar rights in the young people they work with—to an extent.

In a number of gestures, adults in schools and community organizations who adhere to democratic education grant young people the right to voluntary class attendance, voting through class meetings, and in some cases, “all aspects of the school” are led jointly by participants in these meetings. This is A.S. Neill supposedly dismissed early efforts to replicate Summerhill in the U.S., because he thought they were granting license, not freedom. He was wrong; they were granting the right to self-governance, not freedom. As William Deresiewicz so powerfully showed, that’s a premise of American democracy that’s been lost to the years.

Neill’s fetishizing of freedom for children has become the premise for a lot of democratic education today. Unforuntately, as the next IDEC will inevitably show in August, it is an international movement that’s reaching in twenty-nine directions at once, all without a unifying focus beyond the well-intended adults trying to change the world. Not unlike much of the society many of these activist-educators are working to change, much of the work they do is deeply infused with adultism.

However, the right to self-governance, when applied to children and youth, is wholly adultist, as are all forms of governance. Let’s be absolutely clear here: Adultism is bias towards adults, and so far as history shows, no form of governance has ever been proposed and enacted upon by children or youth. Rather than how many philosophizers and theorizers would define it, adultism is not merely discrimination towards youth. Instead, adultism is bias towards adults, and it is not always wrong.

In the case of democratic education, adultism informs its very existence. As Neill showed in his refutation mentioned above, revealing the very premise of our understanding of freedom is adultist since it was he himself who determined its necessity rather than the young people he worked with themselves. In other democratic education settings this is true, too, as so many program workers, educators, community organizers, and activists form their opinions of the world and then impose them on young people, calling them democratic education rather than allowing young people to form their own conceptions independent of adults’ influence, guidance, leadership, or facilitation. All schools, all nonprofits, all groups, and all movements do this.

The final important distinction to make about adultism in democratic education is regarding the difference between capacity and capability. Capacity is the ability a single person has to understand information, use it in doing something, and foresee the outcomes of that thing. Because of the ways that each person evolves, the boundaries of an individual’s personal capacity are largely unknown throughout their life and can only be seen on a person-by-person basis. In an important difference, capability is a specific level of skill, knowledge, or ability relative to a task. It is a continuum that is best measured by degrees in order to allow for according, appropriate, and just differentiation between people. In these ways, capacity refers to what could be, while capability refers to what is.

As the natural world around us routinely reflects, young people are not born with the capability to operate in the world around them. However, every child and youth has infinite capacity to live according to their own terms. The dilemma is that well-meaning adults throughout our field seem to mix up these two words, capability and capacity. They assume young people are capable of leading themselves whenever, wherever, and however they want to, without working to intentionally increase the capacity of young people to do this. This is a deep expression of adultism, whereupon adults assume that young people have the same capability as them simply because adults have the capacity to do it. This is an unjust assumption at best.

Alternatives to Adultism

In his novel Turn Coat, Jim Butcher explains, “No one is an unjust villain in his own mind. Even – perhaps even especially – those who are the worst of us. Some of the cruelest tyrants in history were motivated by noble ideals, or made choices that they would call ‘hard but necessary steps’ for the good of their nation. We’re all the hero of our own story.”

I have found this is true of democratic education too, as with much of society’s work with young people in general. The fields of youth development, K-12 education, social services, counseling and therapy, and public health are all littered with heroes like this, people who are unjust villains trying to save the world. I am wholly responsible for this thinking myself, both as a line-level youth worker who held a variety of direct service positions with young people for more than a decade, and as a government administrator and consultant who has worked in all kinds of organizations across the U.S. and internationally focused on children and youth.

Democratic education, in all its myriad forms, can only be be anti-adultist by making young people fully equal partners. This means that in addition to the self-governance over educational operations, all children and youth of any age in any space has full ownership over fundraising, the mission, and higher levels of organizational operation through an equal or greater number of full voting positions on boards of directors for the schools and nonprofits that are practicing democratic education. In many states across the United States, those roles are fully against the law for young people to occupy. I am not saying that is right or fair, but that is the way it is. In other situations where young people can legally hold those positions, in organizations ascribing to the values of democratic education, young people are often thrown into these positions by well-meaning adults without the knowledge and skills (read: capacity) to fully contribute. This justifies adults’ rationale thinking that says young people have nothing of substance to contribute.

In the face of this discrimination, I have found that it is never good to falsely sooth ourselves into believing we’re being anti-adultist. Every adult practices adultism. By confronting the situations and naming what they are, I have found we can successfully challenge them from an informed place of critical awareness instead of a naïve place of self-satisfaction with status quo.

No Alternative to Adultism

Beward of Children sign
I saw this sign outside of a school in Lancashire, UK.

From my own position of experience and privilege, I want to propose that there is no alternative to adultism. It is not one of the Big “Ism”s, like the racism, sexism, and classism. Most people define those “isms” as exaggerated beliefs focused on a group or category of people, and while we popularly refer to adultism this way, that’s not the right framework. As any bias towards adults, adultism forms a foundation of our social relationships.

There’s something askew in the thinking that all adultism anywhere ever is inherently wrong, bad, and eeeeevil. Nature habituates hierarchical relationships among many species in order to propel evolution forward. Given the absence of adults in their species, many animals simply die, while others live only to procreate. I will not abandon our young people to their own devices and defenses in the name of personal freedom, if only because I believe that with the rights I enjoy as a human being, there are inherent responsibilities I possess as well. One of them is to raise young people in ways that are just and fair, which is more important than free and unhindered. My adult privilege tells me so, and adultism informs that.

Rather than using adultism incorrectly to describe the discrimination young people face in democratic education, we should use the correct terms to identify why and how this reality is conjured, surfaces, lives, and sustains itself. Words like ephebiphobia, which is the fear of youth; pediaphobia, the fear of children; and adultcentrism, which is the belief that adults are better than young people; these words should be used throughout democratic education, instead of or along with adultism, which should only be used to describe bias towards adults. Paternalism, patriarchy, infantalizing, and even maternalism should be used accordingly, too, as each plays a unique role in democratic learning environments.

The continued usage of adultism without deep examination of its extended parts will actually be detrimental to the growth of democratic education. Using the misunderstood definition or applying it in a blanketed way across all discrimination facing young people reflects a lazy, irrelevant analysis that is inconsistent with the goals of what a lot of well-meaning adults say they want through democratic education practices and organizations.

Overcoming Naïveté

You Are Here like it or not
You Are Here like it or not

The concepts we’re looking for, I think, are within grasp. We are on the brink of a social transformation that insists on recognizing the evolving capacities of young peopleyouth/adult equity and social justice for children and youth. Democratic education can claim youth/adult partnerships as a cornerstone right now, positioning young people in substantive, rich relationships with adults in strategic, intentional, and deliberate ways. Every day, each of us can strive and enact justice with young people in our personal and professional relationships with all young people of every age in all locations we find ourselves.

This naïveté is at the core of democratic education today, and it can be overcome, if we’re willing to learn. Understanding that adultism is deep in our work, but not the only thing worth learning, is essential to this fight. I have found that by directly confronting adultcentrism, paternalism, and ephebiphobia I am compelling society towards becoming more just and fair for young people -and- adults; by fighting adultism, I am merely spinning my wheels.

Are you ready to take up arms against semantics and engage in a real struggle? It is time we address adultism in democratic education.

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In Defense of Public Schools

A decade ago, I first that public schools, which are the heart of our democratic society, are by example teaching students nothing about participating in a democracy.

That was at the beginning of the age of No Child Left Behind, or NCLB, the draconian federal school funding law which mandates standardized teaching, learning, and evaluation across the United States. That law continues today relatively unabated by the Obama administration.



Today, more than 12 years after the instillation of NCLB, a revolution is working against the anti-democratic nature of the process of public education. It is completely apt and necessary, and more people are getting on board with it every single day. This revolution has many sides, and the one I’m rallying against today is the demonization of public education brought about by advocates like John Taylor Gatto, who wrote, “When you take the free will out of education, that turns it into schooling.”

This little revolution actually began back in the 1990s, with peak teachers of that era coming from the 1960s and early 70s. They were the last of the “free” teachers, grinding their idealism into their students, who are today’s parents.

Their idealism enabled the parents of students today to see for the first time exactly what schools are doing to their children. Because of this, like never before, we as parents can see our kids pushed out of learning by overly-rigorous, anti-creative, dehumanizing educational practices.

The parents who don’t share that particular analysis or outcomes are leaving simply because it doesn’t seem right for children to experience non-democratic learning in a democratic society.

In turn, adult voters whose children have graduated or who never had children are divesting in public education by routinely voting down public funding levees and electing anti-public education candidates. Students are responding too by dropping out, either physically or mentally, by simply completing school without ever attaching to learning.

At the same time, corporate profiteers have raided public education by jury rigging curriculum and testing to meet standards set by politicians who are owned by corporations who are driven by profits. The extensions of this corporate-political-industrial complex include the school-to-prison pipeline and the American service industry, both of which are reliant on schools to fail.



All of this says little or nothing of students themselves, who are responding en masse. Growing up in routinely racially segregated learning environments with vast inequities according to their race and socio-economic statuses, well-to-do white students from wealthy families are systematically set up to succeed, while their counterpart students of color and low-income white peers are tracked to failure – routinely. With a small proportion of students set up for that success, the vast majority are mired in measures of failure, all the while more enticed by the fruits of a free society than any students in many generations.

“Successful” students experience access, ability, and engagement through modes of technology that have no place within public schools today, while the “unsuccessful” students struggle more against falling in the holes created for them than ever before. I know all of this not only because I have studied it and lived alongside schools during these transitions, but because I have experienced it, first as a student and a brother, then as a state education worker, then as a school consultant, now as a dad.

AND there’s more to the situation than all of that.

The situation is cynically ironic: these places, which are the heart of our democratic society, are teaching young people nothing about democratic living. And yet, they are, and we don’t notice. Its actually what we don’t notice that we’re not advocating for, and without that advocacy we’re loosing democracy right now, if only because corporations want it that way because they stand to make more money from our divestment in public schools and our disinterest in educating in a democracy.



On the whole, we don’t notice that public schools are the bedrock of democratic society: politicians don’t refer to them as such, teachers don’t embrace them that way as a whole, and students don’t learn that without the very presence of a free, universal, and public education our democratic society would cease to exist. We don’t remember what FDR taught when he said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” The preparation he spoke of was not specifically teaching young people through democracy; it was simply the practice of education within a democratic society.

On the whole, we don’t recognize that the situation of “democratic” in schooling for a long time was simply defined by those three terms I used above: Democracy meant FREE, as in accessible without cost; UNIVERSAL, meaning that all young people could attend, not just the ones who were selected at will; and PUBLIC, meaning that there was a system of voting by voters which established, ensured, and sustained the free and universal components of schools. That’s the only way that democracy was seen as relevant to public schools for a very long time (both before and after John Dewey, if you’re an education nerd).

By these three criteria, the backlash that educators, education leaders, and politicians are beginning to sense, squelch, and plainly resist is apropos, if only because they thought they were doing their jobs, and rightly so, because they were.

But when that definition of Democracy changed to mean broad personal efficacy, active participation, and systemic transparency, schools simply couldn’t keep up, and its being made more challenging for them to catch up. That isn’t to sound apologetic for schools or the education system, either. The ways they’ve behaved in response to these transformations, including becoming highly autocratic, obfuscating public knowledge, and colluding with corporate interests, are deplorable. They necessitate critiques by people like Sir Ken Robinson, who said, “Our education system is impoverishing our spirits as much as fast food is depleting our bodies.” This is absolutely true and evidenced in the responses of public schools to transformations in the world around them.

In the meantime, technology is leading a cultural transformation which is mandating social transformations which are [going to] drive institutional transformations in the United States and elsewhere. One of the transformations is that public schools must reflect modern conceptions of democracy.



President John F. Kennedy, who constantly reminded Americans to be active in the world around themselves, challenged that, “The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.” The ignorance of people who would work to eliminate public schools on the backs of them not being democratic enough undermines the entirety of this democracy.

So, while we’re tearing at the infrastructure and teachings of the public education system, we should keep the purpose, intent, and ability of schools in mind. We have to remember that Democracy is stronger and more aligned to the cultural transformations we seek than any other system of governance. Schools can, should, and must continue to be the greatest purveyors of that understanding. THAT is what I’m fighting for in schools, and nothing less.
The question of WHY public schools today are so compromised isn’t particularly addressed here, beyond noting that corporations benefit from them. Dewey gave two answers that expand on this. The first was obviously related, “As long as politics is the shadow cast on society by big business, the attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance.”. The second is the premise for all my work: “Every thinker puts some portion of an apparently stable world in peril and no one can wholly predict what will emerge in its place.” Socially, culturally, economically, and morally conservative people work to maintain status quo constantly; Dewey’s contention shows why exactly they fight against the empowerment of young people, and why I fight for it. 


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The Need to Take Action for Schools

I don’t advocate for “free children”.

Almost a century ago, English author and educator A. S. Neill wrote, “Free children are not easily influenced; the absence of fear accounts for this phenomenon. Indeed, the absence of fear is the finest thing that can happen to a child.”

It was in 2001 that I was sitting with a group of “non-traditionally engaged” youth in Olympia, Washington, brainstorming about changing the world, when they suggested I start “Free Children” and promote youth activism. Finding a Canadian organization already took that name, I modified it and began working.

The Freechild Project has never advocated for “free children” though, and neither have I. I have written about this concept of the free child before, but rather than an anarchistic sense of radical self-entitlement, I advocate for freedom. Early on in my work I learned its important to acknowledge that while it’s true that there are 74 million people under the age of 18 in the US, and 2.5 billion people under-18 worldwide, they aren’t the only ones here. As the feminist hero Fannie Lou Hamer once said, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” So I don’t advocate for “free children”, but for freedom.

That said, the road to freedom is through education. bell hooks once wrote, “To be changed by ideas was pure pleasure. But to learn ideas that ran counter to values and beliefs learned at home was to place oneself at risk, to enter the danger zone. Home was the place where I was forced to conform to someone else’s image of who and what I should be. School was the place where I could forget that self and, through ideas, reinvent myself.”

That is what I am most interested in: public schools as a site to examine, invent, and reinvent oneself. Because of this, they are still roads to freedom, and for that, we engage with them, not against them.

I believe that a substantive, child-centered, child-driven education is absolutely essential to the health of democracy, and that’s what I advocate for. Public schools have the capacity to delivery that education. Towards that end, I work to actively engage them with the knowledge, skills, and abilities they need to transform their own educations and the educations of succeeding generations; I also work directly with educators, school leaders, and community advocates to transform public schools to become the kinds of places that infuse the “passion, free will, freedom and joy” of all young people throughout the education system and the democratic society we share. Ultimately, public schools are the only places in society where that collective, conscious enterprise can occur, and in that way I support them.

Critics who suggest that any and every public school is incapable of genuinely benefiting students in any way are generally offering misguided criticism, if only because in the vast majority of schools benefit some of the students some of the time. There are a growing number that make many students richer all the time. I support schools if only because that’s the institution where the vast majority of young people spend their time. I believe we must engage them where they’re at and revolutionize places we can affect, rather than extinguish those places without paying attention to the rest of their lives that may actually be more harmful.

Saul Alinsky once wrote, “True revolutionaries do not flaunt their radicalism. They cut their hair, put on suits and infiltrate the system from within.” I’m going back inside now, and I’ll get quiet again soon. This is why I believe we need to engage in schools.


This post is stemming from an interesting dialog. On this blog a few years ago, a writer named Laurie Couture took the privilege of grandstanding and wrote,

“The Free Child project is a great idea, but I think it fails to indict the most mountainous, enormous force in society’s hatred and oppression of children: Forced/compulsory schooling. Public schools abuse children in every way possible. Everything about the school environment is antithetical to children’s basic physical needs (food, hydration, elimination, movement, play, connection with parents), emotional needs (connection, safety, freedom and affection) and their creative and intellectual needs. Children are truly treated as hostages in public school, and their passion, free will, freedom and joy are stripped from them and their ability to learn. You cannot work for children’s rights as long as you support a system that was designed to oppress children. Please consider working with the unschooling and Attachment Parenting movement.”

Curious about how to respond, yesterday I took the liberty of posting this comment verbatim to The Freechild Project facebook page. It received more views than average posts, and elicited some impassioned responses from readers. You can read that conversation.

While Couture’s position is thorough and not wholly wrong, her analysis is ultimately misguided and ill-thought through. In America, the privilege of leaving school and succeeding in life by one’s own terms belongs mostly to well-to-do white people. Similar to how the experience Couture describes isn’t true for all students, the experience of dropping out is rarely positive for most students.

Stay tuned for updates, but know that this is why I do what I do. And this. Why are you doing what you do?

Youth Engagement in Democratic Education

Way back in 2008, I presented a few workshops at the International Democratic Education Conference. I had dabbled in the “DemEd” community for a few years by then, and this was my first push to really inject the movement I stand for: Youth engagement. While it seems antithetical for democratic education to be anything other than engaging for youth, as a student and parent who has experienced democratic education for years, I have experienced it to be otherwise. At IDEC I wanted to share those experiences with folks.
Now, five years later, I’ve continued to be involved in a variety of ways, both locally and nationally. However, what I’ve seen in the last several years has shocked me as I’ve become more alert to the reality of democratic education as its practiced across the country.

What I have seen is that youth engagement in democratic education is still expressly focused on youth as consumers of learning. In this way, they’re granted a lot more leverage than traditional learners: Allowed to design and determine their own learning experiences in many ways, all democratic education experiences generally give young people a lot of leeway in learning what they want.

However, the experience of owning the democratic education experience generally belongs to the parents of students, the adults on the boards of directors, and the learning environment leaders (i.e. teachers, learning guides, etc.), instead of students themselves.

Generally, students in democratic schools…

  • Don’t have a say over the budgets of their democratic schools 
  • Don’t control the facilities 
  • Don’t generally hire the teachers 
  • Don’t vote on the boards of directors 
  • Don’t make operating rules 
  • Aren’t invited to review grant proposals 
  • Don’t determine whether or not they actually go to the schools in the first place. 


Generally, democratic education is still done to students or for students instead of with students or by students themselves.

While a lot of people are resolved that democratic education generally respects learners, gets past memorization and standardization, and moves away from forced learning, they don’t recognize the reality of most democratic education environments. That is, in this way of doing education that is done for and to students, we generally aren’t addressing the real issues that face students in the long run. Instead, we’re focused on the day-to-day experience of learning. By trying to make schools as affable and immediately gratifying as we can, we deny their ultimate necessity in the democracy we live in.

Democracy is not borne overnight on the backs of angels; instead, its an active, interactive, and hyperactive exchange of passion, purpose, and power that happens over vast time and spaces. The Butterfly Effect is fully actualized within democracy. That’s why its vital to infuse democratic education, and all education within a democracy, with Meaningful Student Involvement.

Meaningful Student Involvement positions all learners as full partners with adults throughout the education system. Learn more about it here.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Student Voice Is NOT Democracy

Student voice is not democracy. 
Out of my decade-plus experience working in schools to promote student voice, a few lessons and experiences stand out. This article highlights one of those experiences, and is focused on one of those lessons.

During the 2006/07 and 2007/08 school years, I worked with almost 150 schools in seven BOCES across New York State in a project focused on Meaningful Student Involvement. Supporting the schools with a broad range of activities including school improvement sessions, keynote presentations, and individual school consultations, I learned a lot about educators’ assumptions about student voice. One of the early beliefs forwarded by participants from across the state was the idea that student voice was democracy in action. 
Working with those schools for those years, I repeatedly found lessons emerge in my practice. 
Lesson One: Schools Are Not Democracies

Being the autocratic, adultcentric environments that they are, schools are not democracies, and school leaders and educators routinely tell students that. That pronouncement alone equates student voice to something other than democratic. When I train about it, I emphasize that when engaged accordingly, student voice can be an avenue towards efficacy in teaching, learning, and leadership in education. 
I think the argument that student voice is democracy in action is flawed at its core. In my experience working with hundreds of schools across the US and Canada, I’ve found that, relatively speaking, students who are chosen to share their voices in school leadership are generally not representative of the majority of learners. They generally have privileges that others don’t, including the academic achievement and fiscal background needed to allow them to participate, and to ensure their successful experience sharing student voice.

These students are generally what I call “traditional student voice”; that is, their voices are generally predictable and acceptable to adults. Through gross over-exaggerations about schools and the inability of education to meet their needs, many student voice representatives today don’t even address the basic concerns of low-achieving students, students of color, or low-income students in schools today. To the chagrin of many of my compatriots in the student voice movement, I regularly see and admit that the majority of traditional student voice representatives merely toe the corporate education agenda sold by mainstream media and the vast majority of politicians (as do their parents).

While all students’ voices have value for improving schools and transforming education, when adults hold up one set of students’ voices and make them reflective or representative of the whole education system that it becomes problematic. That’s true of nontraditional student voice as well as traditional student voice. While some educators pedestal convenient student voice, there are nonprofit organization programs that do the same with inconvenient student voice. They routinely uplift the voices of students of color, low-income students, underachieving learners, and others, offering those students’ critiques as a singular focus for school improvement.

In reality, this isn’t democracy either, as both position one group of students above others. While I readily acknowledge that all student voice is not created equal, I believe that in democracy all people ARE created equal. That’s an essential distinction. 

Lesson Two: We Should Understand What Student Voice Actually Is

As I’ve explained before, student voice is any expression of any learned about any aspect of education. Leveled out like this, its suddenly obvious that the students fighting in the hallway are sharing student voice as much as the students speaking at school board meetings. Student choice, student involvement, student leadership, and student empowerment activities all embody some part of student voice, but no more so than the average history, science, business, or art class, and sometimes even less. Student voice is not the sole providence of student government, the homecoming dance planning committee, or afterschool programs.

That said, with regard to addressing student voice as democracy, I think most programs designed to engage student voice within school reform-focused activities merely uphold presumptions about schools as failing, students as inadequate learners, and teachers as underperforming. As many tokenistic, adult-driven agendas show, educators and school leaders frequently use students to shore up their arguments. These activities are generally not beneficial for students’ concerns, but rather, adults’ alone. Suggesting that student voice is democracy suggests that students are represented through democracy.

Seeing the disconnection between students’ desires and schools’ offerings, as well as their general treatment throughout society, I would challenge that seeing children and youth as a represented constituency in democratic society is an ineffectual posture. Just like undocumented immigrants and felons in the majority of states, all children and youth under 18 are not represented in the democratic process. That doesn’t mean that no one pays attention to their interests; rather, that since they cannot represent themselves, they cannot chose to have somebody represent them; ergo, they’re not represented.

In the same way, without the franchise and routinely denied avenues towards self-representation throughout society, young people who cannot vote are not represented in democratic activities. As such, they are not represented almost anywhere, unless by themselves. Even then, because of the pervasive nature of adultism, the ability of young people to self-represent can be largely questionable at times as well.

From my experience in New York alone, not to mention the other 300 schools I’ve worked with, I have found many educators and school leaders would rather not listen to the majority of student voice anyhow. This reality alone shows the reality facing student voice advocates today.

I honestly believe that positioning it as a means towards democratic representation is disingenuous at best. That doesn’t mean that student voice activities cannot be used to teach democracy, but that the ends shouldn’t be confused.

Lesson Three: Education Can Build Democracy
Student voice activities could be more effective if they balanced different students’ voices. Those don’t necessarily have to be along the lines of race, socio-economic status, or similar lines either: balancing student voice can mean achieving and non-achieving students; dropouts and graduates; non-college bound and college bound; etc. This avoids the pedestaling effects of so many student voice activities. 
In New York, I taught the schools concerned with democracy in education that the places they could most affect democracy were:
  • How their buildings framed student voice,
  • The ways educators frame it and,
  • Students’ understandings of student voice for themselves
Ultimately though, the only avenue towards engaging student voice in democracy isn’t through student voice at all. As a simply expression, student voice can never be democracy. Only through intentional engagement in a larger concept can student voice affect democracy, and that’s why I developed the frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement. True engagement throughout the educational system is required for student voice to not be just another program in schools, and for students to experience democracy in education.

The problem I have with so many student voice projects is that they aren’t for students themselves – they’re for adults. They generally believe that students have the right to their opinions, and adults within the education system have a responsibility to engage those opinions. However, they don’t believe students have a right to share opinions adults don’t agree with. That isn’t democracy. This makes obvious the reality that adults generally don’t think all the way through what they’re doing with students. For lack of exposure, background research, or training, in their well-meaningness many adults actually do more harm to students through student voice activities than help them.

Student voice can be embraced within education systems towards the goal of building democracy, but not as democracy itself. As I frequently advocate for, it can be infused in educational leadership, integrated in classroom teaching and management, and acknowledged for its role in school culture. However, the simple act of student voice should never be confused for the complexity of democracy.

This particular problem allows adults to draw a lot of conclusions. Adults decide students are incapable of contributing meaningfully (e.g. how we want them to) towards school improvement. Actively engaging the diverse student voice and demonstrating that diversity in every activity can stop the belief that one student or group of students can or should represent all students. That’s closer to democracy.

Thanks to Jeroen G. Bron of the National Institute for Curriculum Development, SLO, The Netherlands; and John Loflin of the Black & Latino Policy Institute in Indianapolis for pushing my thinking in this area.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!