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New Book on "Democratic Dilemmas" Outlines Two Divergent Cases

Julie Marsh sent me an email last week about her interesting new book, “Democratic Dilemmas: Joint Work, Education Politics, and Community” (SUNY Press). Drawing on three years of field research and extensive theoretical and empirical literature, Democratic Dilemmas chronicles the day-to-day efforts of educators and laypersons working together to advance student learning in two California school districts. Marsh reveals how power, values, organizational climates, and trust played key roles in these two districts achieving vastly different results. In one district, parents, citizens, teachers, and administrators effectively developed and implemented districtwide improvement strategies; in the other, community and district leaders unsuccessfully attempted to improve systemwide accountability through dialogue.

I asked Julie if she could send me a little more detail to share with the NCDD network, specifically about why one effort succeeded while the other did not, and whether dialogue was a strong component in both programs (it was).  Learn more or order the book at www.sunypress.edu/details.asp?id=61456, download the first chapter of the book for free at www.sunypress.edu/pdf/61456.pdf, or click on “more” to read Julie’s great response to my request for more detail.

The 228-page book explores ways to engage citizens in the process of educational improvement. The book highlights the inherent tensions of deliberative democracy, competing notions of representation, limitations of current conceptions of educational accountability, and the foundational importance of trust to democracy and education reform. It further provides a framework for improving community-educator collaboration and lessons for policy and practice. 

Here is some text from the author that further explains the two cases and factors contributing to the greater success in one of these cases…

In the first district, Mid Valley (pseudonym), the superintendent and board president appointed a group of community leaders to participate in the Community Accountability Project (CAP), an initiative to improve systemwide education through enhanced community involvement. The design of this endeavor was a bifurcated process in which community leaders (the “Advisory”) first met as a group over the course of a year to generate their own ideas; then shared and discussed these ideas with the school board and central office; and ultimately co-constructed action items. In the first year, community advisors met monthly with district staff to develop the goals and activities of CAP and decided upon four strategies to pursue jointly with the district, such as inventing new district and communitywide systems to support teachers. After three tense “Study Sessions” between community members, the school board, and district leadership, no actions were taken on the proposed ideas. The investment of two years and more than $400,000 left participants and observers embittered by the experience.

In the second district, Highland (pseudonym), one teacher, parent, principal, and student from each school met with local citizens, district administrators, and board members to develop long-range strategies to improve districtwide student achievement. Building on a ten-year history of strategic planning, the district convened a three-day, facilitated meeting of brainstorming, discussion, and priority-setting that occurred in rotating small and large groups. Guided by professional facilitators and explicit norms of participation, the group ultimately agreed upon four key strategies: expanding time for teaching, learning, and planning; developing interventions for students; getting students ready for kindergarten; and K-12 articulation. Following the dissemination of this plan, the district organized “action teams” to assist in planning for implementation. Over time, the district implemented many of these jointly constructed ideas and most participants left the experience feeling empowered and willing to participate again.

In the end, although both districts started with similar deliberative democratic goals—to engage a representative group of constituents in reason-based decision-making aimed at improving learning for all students—they achieved very different results. What explains this? As I explain in the book, both districts encountered struggles along the way. So it is not fair to conclude that Highland was a complete success and Mid Valley a failure. Instead, I argue that Highland came much closer to achieving its democratic goals than did Mid Valley. As the book explores in great detail, several contextual conditions in Highland greatly facilitated the deliberative process—including an organizational structure and culture that was less bureaucratic and more learning-centered than that in Mid Valley and a pervasive climate of trust among administrators and between community members and district personnel that was not present in Mid Valley. Some other contributing factors include:

  • Communicating expectations up front. As Mid Valley demonstrated, without early conversations to ensure that everyone understood and supported CAPs purpose and scope, lingering confusion and misperceptions plagued the endeavor throughout its life-span. Conversely, Highland’s use of facilitators and explicit articulation of goals and purpose at the beginning of the process helped ensure a shared sense of purpose.
  • Paying careful attention to who they involved and how they defined the community to be represented. Highland organizers were much more deliberate than those in Mid Valley in aligning who was involved with what was on the table. If the topics under consideration or the scope of deliberations might impact or threaten a particular group, organizers might consider directly involving representatives of this group in the deliberations, as did Highland. In contrast, by not involving teacher representatives in a process that focused on topics directly related to instruction, tensions arose in Mid Valley that ultimately secured the demise of the CAP initiative (union leaders used the issue in contract negotiations and assured district leaders they would not tolerate continued funding for an initiative that did not involve them).
  • Structuring the process to achieve deliberative means and ends. Highland organizers guaranteed up front that all participants understood and agreed to the roles they were expected to play. They also made explicit the rules of engagement—who would facilitate, how communication would occur between the various stakeholders, and deliberative norms—to create an environment conducive to honest and open exchange of ideas. Practices that were especially effective in Highland included the decision rule of “can you live with it?” to help achieve consensus and a focus on the common good, and the use of a 30-second whip to publicize everyone’s position on a topic (positions they discussed in more depth in small and large group conversations throughout the day). The use of facilitators, rotating groups, and shared expectations up front helped create an environment where people felt comfortable stating their views and trusting that others would respectfully listen. These features also enabled participants to learn about the motivations of co-participants, which further built a sense of trust around common goals and vision. These conditions were not present in Mid Valley (e.g., there were no facilitators at several meetings and at one meeting, organizers set out explicit norms but never enforced them, calling into question the legitimacy of the process).
  • Paying attention to pedagogy and grouping strategies. Although CAP staff learned this lesson later, Highland leaders paid great attention upfront to providing participatory modes of interaction and a mixture of activities so that participants remained engaged and aligned with deliberative norms. In particular, the rotation in and out of small groups appeared to give everyone an opportunity to state their opinion and to facilitate decisions based on reasoned argument and reciprocity. Conversely, Mid Valley’s decision to group the community members in exclusive deliberations for more than a year constrained the larger deliberations among district leaders who were not privy to the Advisory-only discussions, ideas, or relationships built over time.
  • Leadership. If the democratic principles of accountability and equal voice are to be realized, leadership in a deliberative setting requires a willingness to cede one’s formal authority and participate on equal terms with individuals with less formal or informal power. Leadership in this setting also implies important trust-building roles and responsibilities. As both cases illustrate, the climate of trust—a vital pre-condition for democratic joint work—often hinges on participants’ perceptions of the intent and ability of leaders convening the process. In contrast to Mid Valley, the Highland superintendent was much more willing to participate as equals with participants and more consistently viewed as trustworthy.


Julie A. Marsh is Policy Researcher at the RAND Corporation. She is the coauthor (with Kerri A. Kerr, Gina S. Ikemoto, Hilary Darilek, Marika Suttorp, Ron W. Zimmer, and Heather Barney) of The Role of Districts in Fostering Instructional Improvement: Lessons from Three Urban Districts Partnered with the Institute for Learning and the coeditor (with Amy M. Hightower, Michael S. Knapp, and Milbrey W. McLaughlin) of School Districts and Instructional Renewal.

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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