Monthly Archives: February 2017

What Advice Did Our Founders and First Presidents Offer On Preserving Our Democracy?

What Advice Did Our Founders and First Presidents Offer On Preserving Our Democracy? by Bill Honig

In today’s political arena many of the basic tenets of our democracy are being challenged   and there is evidence that too many young people (and adults) are not attaching to democratic ideas and responsibilities.  It is fitting on President’s day that Americans should revisit the ideas, warnings, and advice of our first leaders. They understood that governance resting on popular consent was a huge gamble since no previous efforts at creating a successful democracy had survived. The effort would be difficult and would require continued vigilance by each generation of citizens and political representatives to last.

Our early leaders were very specific about what was necessary for our great democratic experience to endure and tried to inoculate the country against three main dangers:  Majority rule degenerating into anarchy from irreconcilable conflicts, growing inequality re-instating oligarchy and corruption, and the democracy succumbing to tyranny from fear-based and dishonest demagoguery.

Building on the colonists experience in self-governing churches and local government they proposed a constitution based on representative government and majority rule which built a structure for the separation of powers, federalism, periodic elections to hold government accountable, and protections for individuals and the democratic system enshrined in our Bill of Rights.  That was their first line of defense against our democracy failing.

But Madison, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton and Franklin also knew that the structure of government was necessary but not sufficient. They and those that followed made several other crucial suggestions. Citizens needed to be well-versed in democratic ideals and experience, willing to participate, exercise self-discipline and be law-abiding, and develop the habits of tolerance and democratic deliberation. Representatives needed to respect our institutions and be accountable for their actions and veracity.

James Kloppenberg in his masterful recent book, Toward Democracy chronicles the development of democratic ideas and beliefs culminating in the creation and subsequent development of our country. He found three main themes and three supportive ideas which are helpful in understanding how best to fight for and protect our democratic ideals.

First, representative government deriving from “the people” and how that could work was evidenced in our Constitution. The founders were aware of the danger of quick but misguided action and created mechanisms to increase deliberation and spread power such as an independent judiciary both at the national and state level. They also were cognizant of the tension between majority rule and the rights of minorities and individuals and attempted to balance those interests. They also knew that some protections against government were crucial for individuals and for the system to work such as a free press to hold those in government accountable and root out corruption, mendacity, and self-dealing, free speech for the free exchange of ideas, free expression of religion and a proscription of the government establishing one religion, due process, a fair and equal administration of our laws, and that everyone, even the president, should be subject to our laws. They thought that citizens and representatives must understand and value the legitimacy of these structures.

Second, increasing liberty or autonomy of individuals was a key purpose of our democracy. Free individual choices and spheres of action and protection from overbearing government or repressive majorities was part of it. But they were also aware of the dangers of untrammeled self-interest, ignoring the common good, and a lack of the individual self-discipline needed for a free democracy to survive.

Third, equality or respecting the humanity and brotherhood of all citizens, in practice limited at first, but setting the stage for the struggle for legal, political, social, and economic equality for all (liberty and justice for all from our Pledge of Allegiance). The history of the 228 years since our constitution was adopted has been the slow struggle in fits and starts and backsliding to broaden the definition of “We, the People”

The founders also believed that three other habits and beliefs were crucial for a democracy to survive.

First, a commitment to democratic deliberation. Most of our founders were well aware of the religious wars in Europe and oppressive countries which only tolerated one set of beliefs. In a successful democracy truth and policies should arise from discussion which necessitated respect for opponents, listening, and supporting decisions resulting from democratic deliberations.

Second, pluralism and tolerance of diverse groups—religious, racial, ethnic, national origin, class, and regional. The United States is attempting something unique in human history. A large country composed of diverse interests and groups comprised of the world’s populations who find enough common purpose to sustain a democracy. This goal requires a higher stage of ethical behavior than in more homogeneous countries. It is human nature to identify with our respective groups and become hostile to others and our country has gone through decades of racial, religious, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, and class prejudice, hostility, and legal discrimination even in the face of our democratic ideals. Keeping group ties while being tolerant and respectful of others is a difficult but crucial task for our country. This mission is undermined by leaders who appeal to group hatred which dishonors a basic principle of our heritage.

Our founders and first presidents confronted the dilemma of slavery knowing that slavery violated the democratic principles of representative government, liberty, and equality on which our country was created. It wasn’t until Lincoln and the Civil war finally determined that the continued existence of slavery sullied the ethical component to democracy and established that the idea that majority rules could mean a majority could oppress one group of humans (Stephen Douglas’s position in the Lincoln/Douglas debates) was morally unacceptable. It took another 100 years for equality and fair political and legal treatment to be established in reality by the Civil Rights movement—a position we are still struggling with. Similar efforts were made for other repressed groups such as women, ethnic and religious minorities, and gays and the working class.

Finally, Kloppenberg, enshrines the founders belief in idea of reciprocity as an essential ingredient of successful democracies. Our founders understood the importance to a democracy of the religious belief that all individuals were equal before God, the central Christian doctrine of love, (Love your neighbor as yourself) and the ubiquitous belief in the Golden Rule. In a democracy citizens must accept the underlying humanity, legitimacy, and significance of all even while disagreeing on specific policies. The founders thought that in successful democracies majorities didn’t try to crush their opponents but saw the importance of continued debate with them to reach better solutions.

Our country almost disintegrated in the harsh political atmosphere of the 1790’s. After flirting with wholesale demonization and false accusations of the opposition both Jefferson and Adams and their followers relented and the “era of good feelings” occurred with the election of Jefferson. Years later, Lincoln in his first Inaugural Address asked the South to discuss not fight and appealed to the “better angels of our nature” and when the war appeared won in his Second Inaugural was not vindictive to Southerners as many in the North wished but advocated reconciliation. (with malice towards none, with charity for all)

Our founders also strongly believed that an educated citizenry was essential to the success of a democracy to counteract the belief that the lack of education and perspective made people susceptible to demagogic appeals and unable to fully participate in democratic deliberations. Most importantly, each new generation needed to be well-versed and attached to democratic ideas, democratic history, democratic habits, and a willingness to participate in self-government and engage in ethical self-discipline. An educated citizenry was viewed as a key bulwark for democracy.

Our early leaders eventually proposed free public education as a necessary component to allow our democracy to succeed. This idea that the government not solely parents should provide a common education and that all citizens should pay for the education of children not their own was unsuccessfully resisted by many in the 19th century as public education became widespread.  Those advocating for the importance of a “common schools” won the debate. (Some people today want to re-litigate the issue decrying “government schools”, supporting large cuts for public schools, and advocating privatizing of public education.)

Benjamin Franklin when asked by a women after the Constitutional Convention what kind of government they decided on “a republic or a monarchy” he quickly replied “A republic if you can keep it.” Lincoln in his immortal Gettysburg address alluded to the fragile nature of our democracy and that our devotion to a continued effort to perfect our ideals of freedom and equality was necessary so that “government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth”. That fight goes on.

Bill Honig was Superintendent of Public Instruction in California from 1983-1993. He is currently Vice-Chair of the California Instructional Quality Commission which develops K-12 content frameworks and reviews instructional materials for the California State Board of Education. That board recently adopted a History/Social Science framework which incorporates many of the ideas in this article.

January 2017 Updates–Charters, Vouchers, Content, and Build and Support.


More Damaging Examples of Charter and Voucher Excesses

Many vouchers don’t improve education, some fund discriminatory schools, exacerbate segregation, and drain public school funds.

A study in Indiana found that discrimination is rampant in voucher supported schools.

A study finding widespread exclusions of students from religious schools in North Carolina’s voucher program.

Chapter and verse of financial and other scams in Arizona’s non-accountable charter schools sector.

A study of a Pennsylvania district severely harmed by charter expansions.

New Orleans bloated charter school bureaucracy

Consistent with this website, an article by Henry Levin finds across the planet vouchers and choice have not improved educational performance and have resulted in a marked increase in segregation.

For a balanced article on other countries use of choice strategies see Marc Tucker’s comments.  Here is a quote: Summing up to this point, we can say that there is no evidence anywhere that a country, state or province can enter the ranks of the top performers using choice strategies alone.  There are certainly countries that have both high achievement and strong policies favoring choice. However, there appears to be a trade-off between choice and equity, and, crucially important, it is difficult, if not impossible, to find examples of countries that have high achievement at scale in which government does not play a very strong role in both designing and running the system using a broad spectrum of strategies.

A powerful video showing the damage DeVos’s choice policies wreaked on Detroit.

Low performance by many of Texas’s Kipp charter schools.


Build and Support

Build and Support strategies have substantially improved schools in New Zealand.


Content Knowledge is a Key to Reading Comprehension

Discipline Content Knowledge not generic skills is a crucial driver of reading comprehension.

Huge Research Project Demonstrates that after learning to decode, discipline Knowledge is the largest contributor to reading comprehension. Seven years ago IES (the federal research institution) started a focused research program to address how to improve reading comprehension the US classrooms.  They spent about $120 million, engaged many dozens of researchers, have by now over 200 referred journal articles etc.   These studies  find that the steady build-up of discipline specific knowledge and deep engagement with that knowledge are the main determinants of reading comprehension.  Here is a quote from Catherine Snow, one of the main author of the studies which gives the flavor of much of the research—debates, discussions, papers, and projects specific to the disciplines are crucial:

The demands of literacy tasks change appreciably after students have mastered the basics of reading words accurately and with reasonable automaticity. At about age 10 reading becomes a tool for acquiring information, understanding a variety of points of view, critiquing positions, and reasoning. The results of international and US assessments show that many students who succeed at early reading tasks struggle with these new developmental challenges, focusing attention on the instructional needs of adolescent readers.  Commonly used approaches to comprehension instruction in the post-primary grades, such as teaching reading comprehension strategies, do not adequately respond to the multiple challenges adolescents face. One such challenge is the need to acquire discipline-specific ways of reading, writing, and thinking, often from teachers who are themselves insufficiently aware of how reading literature differs from reading science or history. We argue that appropriate attention in instruction to discipline-specific literacy practices, to maintaining an authentic purpose for assigned literacy tasks, and to the role of focused discussion as a central element in teaching comprehension would improve reading outcomes and would revolutionize current theories about the nature of reading comprehension.

Goldman, S., and Snow, C.E. (in press). Adolescent Literacy: Development and Instruction. In A. Pollatsek and R. Treiman (Eds.), Handbook on Reading. Oxford University Press.

Also see E.D. Hirsch’s new book “Why Knowledge Matters”. He says after decoding and fluency are learned, a steady buildup of content knowledge through reading, writing and discussion is the main element in improving reading comprehension. Teaching skills such as problem solving, and creativity are not generalizable and only work within each discipline. Teaching main idea, inferencing, and close reading don’t pay off after their introduction and teaching them should be minimized. Tests of these skills actually are testing how much knowledge is brought to task (assuming fluency). He recommends two week spurts of content subjects in literature, history, science, etc which he calls domain immersion.

Duval County makes curriculum and instruction the central drivers of improvement.  From the KnowledgeMatters website  here are some quotes from their interview with the Duval superintendent.

“I would put my eggs more in the curriculum basket that I ever would have before.”

That’s the conclusion of Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Duval County Public Schools, three years into Common Core implementation. Duval is one of the “Big Seven” districts in Florida, with more than half of its 130,000 students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. David Steiner of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy interviewed him recently to hear how it’s going.   “We were the first district in Florida to emphasize curriculum, and it’s been exciting to have districts come visit us and walk through our classrooms,” says Vitti. “Some of them will make the shift next year at the elementary level, based on our results and what they see when they visit our classrooms.” This transformation began in 2014-15, as hundreds of Duval’s teachers compared the Common Core standards with the district’s instructional materials and other resources, such as the EngageNY curriculum. The EngageNY materials were obviously superior, so implementation moved quickly.     Now, Vitti is already seeing a difference with his own children. “What my second grader could talk about at the dinner table every night because of exposure to [the new] curriculum was vastly different than each of my three older children…. [It’s] emphasis on background knowledge changed my son’s level of conversation, the way in which he saw his world, how he could make connections with what was going on throughout society, and just his level of sophistication and knowledge of history and social issues…. [In math] when he’s tackling problems that my older children are tackling, he can actually problem-solve even though he hasn’t been directly taught the strategies linked to answering questions formulaically.”   Similar growth is being seen in classrooms and at dinner tables throughout Duval County. Read the full interview with Vitti for insights into the curriculum reviews and ongoing professional development.

One hundred Seventy Five education deans nationwide released a Declaration of Principles calling on Congress and the Trump Administration to advance democratic values in America’s public schools.

A quote: In a Declaration of Principles released today, 175 deans sounded the alarm: “Our children suffer when we deny that educational inequities exist and when we refuse to invest sufficient time, resources, and effort toward holistic and systemic solutions. The U.S. educational system is plagued with oversimplified policies and reform initiatives that were developed and imposed without support of a compelling body of rigorous research, or even with a track record of failure.” The deans called upon federal leaders to forge a new path forward by:

  • Upholding the role of public schools as a central institution in the strengthening of our democracy;
  • Protecting the human and civil rights of all children and youth, especially those from historically marginalized communities;
  • Developing and implementing policies, laws, and reform initiatives by building on a democratic vision for public education and on sound educational research; and
  • Supporting and partnering with colleges and schools of education to advance these goals.

Test and Punish Travails

A new study by several prestigious research organizations finds that the $3.5 billion SIG program spent on “turnaround strategies” , a key “reform” idea sponsored by previous Sec’y of Education, had no effect. But within that report were some silver linings. Schools using a build and support approach improved.  Two studies from California show not only that schools improved student learning outcomes as a result of participating in the SIG program, but also some of the mechanisms by which this improvement occurred. In particular, rich data on SIG schools in one of the studies shows that schools improved both by differentially retaining their most experienced teachers and by providing teachers with increased supports for instructional improvement such as opportunities to visit each other’s classrooms and to receive meaningful feedback on their teaching practice from school leaders.

Texas State School Grades Just Follow Socio-economics of Students. Diane Ravitch reports findings that Texas’  A-F report cards for schools are deficient and merely reflective of the socio-economics of students.


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