Category Archives: Sociocracy in Education

Education is crucial to building a democratic society. The rights of the individual cannot be exercised by citizens who are not able to argue for themselves or make informed decisions. But the governance and decision-making structure in our schools is far from democratic or efficient. Teachers are the front line of education but they have little power.

What would put teachers in control? How could sociocracy change our educational institutions?

“Sociocracy: Democracy as It Might Be” by Kees Boeke

Kees Boeke and Betty Cadbury
Kees Boeke and Betty Cadbury

Kees Boeke was an internationally known peace activist and educator. During WW II when he was arrested for harboring Jews, in his pocket he had an early draft of a declaration entitled “No Dictatorship.” It could have cost him his life, but he was released. It described a plan for a truly democratic society and was first published in May of 1945 as Sociocracy: Democracy as It Might Be. This version was edited by his wife Beatrice Cadbury Boeke and included here with the permission of his daughter Candia Boeke.

We are so accustomed to majority rule as a necessary part of democracy that it is difficult to imagine any democratic system working without it. It is true that it is better to count heads than to break them, and democracy, even as it is today, has much to recommend it as compared with former practices. But the party system has proved very far from providing the ideal democracy of people’s dreams. Its weaknesses have become clear enough: endless debates in Parliament, mass meetings in which the most primitive passions are aroused, the overruling by the majority of all independent views, capricious and unreliable election results, government action rendered inefficient by the minority’s persistent opposition. Strange abuses also creep in. Not only can a party obtain votes by deplorably underhanded methods, but, as we all know, a dictator can win an election with an “astonishing” majority by intimidation.

The fact is that we have taken the present system for granted for so long that many people do not realize that the party system and majority rule are not an essential part of democracy.

The fact is that we have taken the present system for granted for so long that many people do not realize that the party system and majority rule are not an essential part of democracy. If we really wish to see the whole population united, like a big family, in which the members care for each other’s welfare as much as for their own, we must set aside the quantitative principle of the right of the greatest number and find another way of organizing ourselves. This solution must be really democratic in the sense that it must enable each one of us to share in organizing the community. But this kind of democracy will not depend on power, not even the power of the majority. It will have to be a real community-democracy, an organization of the community by the community itself.

For this concept I shall use the word “sociocracy.” Such a concept would be of little value if it had never been tried out in practice. But its validity has been successfully demonstrated over the years. Anyone who knows England or America will have heard of the Quakers, the Society of Friends. They have had much influence in these countries and are well known for their practical social work. For more than three hundred years the Quakers have used a method of self-government that rejects majority voting, group action being possible only when unanimity has been reached.

I too have found by trying out this method in my school that it really does work, provided there is recognition that the interests of others are as real and as important as one’s own. If we start with this fundamental idea, a spirit of goodwill is engendered which can bind together people from all levels of society and with the most varied points of view. This, my school, with its three to four hundred members, has clearly shown.

As a result of these two experiences, I have come to believe that it should be possible some day for people to govern themselves in this way in a much wider field. Many will be highly skeptical about this possibility. They are so accustomed to a social order in which decisions are made by the majority or by a single person, that they do not realize that, if a group provides its own leadership and everyone knows that only when common agreement is reached can any action be taken, quite a different atmosphere is created from that arising from majority rule. These are two examples of sociocracy in practice; let us hope that its principles may be applied on a national, and finally an international scale.

Before describing how the system could be made to work, we must first see what the problem really is. We want a group of persons to establish a common arrangement of their affairs which all will respect and obey. There will be no executive committee chosen by the majority, having the power to command the individual. The group itself must reach a decision and enter into an agreement on the understanding that every individual in the group will act on this decision and honor this agreement. I have called this the self-discipline of the group. It can be compared to the self-discipline of the individual who has learned to set certain demands for himself that he obeys.

Three Fundamental Rules

There are three fundamental rules underlying the system. The first is that the interests of all members must be considered, the individual bowing to the interests of the whole. Secondly, solutions must be sought which everyone can accept: otherwise no action can be taken. Thirdly, all members must be ready to act according to these decisions when unanimously made.

The spirit that underlies the first rule is really nothing else but concern for one’s neighbor, and where this exists, where there is sympathy for other people’s interests, where love is, there will be a spirit in which real harmony is possible.

The second point must be considered in more detail. If a group in any particular instance is unable to decide upon a plan of action acceptable to every member, it is condemned to inactivity; it can do nothing. This may happen even today where the majority is so small that efficient action is not possible. But in the case of sociocracy there is a way out, since such a situation stimulates its members to seek for a solution, that everyone can accept, perhaps ending in a new proposal, which had not occurred to anyone before.

While under the party system disagreement accentuates the differences and the division becomes sharper than ever, under a sociocratic system, so long as it is realized that agreement must be reached, it activates a common search that brings the whole group nearer together. Something must be added here. If no agreement is possible, this usually means that the present situation must continue for the time being. It might seem that in this way conservatism and reaction would reign, and no progress would be possible. But experience has shown that the contrary is true.

The mutual trust that is accepted as the basis of a sociocratic society leads inevitably to progress, and this is noticeably greater when all go forward together with something everyone has agreed to. Again it is clear that there will have to be “higher-level” meetings of chosen representatives, and if a group is to be represented in such a meeting, it will have to be by someone in whom everyone has confidence. If this does not prove possible, then the group will not be represented at all in the higher-level meeting, and its interests will have to be cared for by the representatives of other groups. But experience has shown that where representation is not a question of power but of trust, the choice of a suitable person can be made fairly easily and without unpleasantness.

The third principle means that when agreement is reached the decision is binding on all who have made it. This also holds of the higher-level meeting for all who have sent representatives to it. There is a danger in the fact that each must keep decisions made in a meeting over which he has only an indirect influence. This danger is common to all such decisions, not least in the party system. But it is much less dangerous where the representatives are chosen by common consent and are therefore much more likely to be trusted.

A group that works in this way should be of particular size. It must be big enough for personal matters to give way to an objective approach to the subject under discussion, but small enough not to be unwieldy, so that the quiet atmosphere needed can be secured. For meetings concerned with general aims and methods a group of about forty has been found the most suitable. But when detailed decisions have to be made, a small committee will be needed of three to six persons or so. This kind of committee is not new. If we could have a look at the countless committees in existence, we should probably find that those that are doing the best work do so without voting. They decide on a basis of common consent. If a vote were to be taken in such a small group, it would usually mean that the atmosphere is wrong.

Leadership

Of special importance in exercising sociocratic government is the leadership. Without a proper leader unanimity cannot easily be reached. This concerns a certain technique that has to be learnt. Here Quaker experience is of the greatest value. Let me describe a Quaker business meeting. The group comes together in silence. In front sits the Clerk, the leader of the meeting. Beside him sits the Assistant Clerk; who writes down what is agreed upon. The Clerk reads out each subject in turn, after which all members present, men and women, old and young, may speak to the subject. They address themselves to the meeting and not to a chairman, each one making a contribution to the developing train of thought.

It is the Clerk’s duty, when he thinks the right moment has come, to read aloud a draft minute reflecting the feeling of the meeting. It is a difficult job, and it needs much experience and tact to formulate the sense of the meeting in a way that is acceptable to all. It often happens that the Clerk feels the need for a time of quiet. Then the whole gathering will remain silent for a while, and often out of the silence will come a new thought, a reconciling solution, acceptable to everyone.

It may seem unbelievable to many that a meeting of up to a thousand people can be held in this way. And yet I have been present at a Yearly Meeting of the Quakers in London, held during war-time (the First World War), at which the much vexed problem of the Quaker attitude to war was discussed in such a manner, no vote being taken. So I believe that if we once set ourselves the task of learning this method of co-operation, beginning with very simple matters, we shall be able to learn this art and acquire a tradition that will make possible the handling of more difficult questions.

Talkovers

This has been confirmed by my experience at Bilthoven in building up the school which I called the Children’s Community Workshop. Very early on I suggested that we should talk over how we should organize our community life. At first the children objected, saying they wanted me to take the decisions for them. But I insisted, and the idea of the ‘Talkover,” or weekly meeting, was accepted. Later I suggested that one of the children help me with the leadership of the meeting; and from that time on it has become an institution, led by the children, which we should not like to lose.

When I began to hold these Talkovers, I was aware that I was using the procedure of the Quaker business meeting, and I saw in the distance, as it were, the great problem of the government of humanity. It was also curious to discover whether the art of living together, understood as obeying the rule we had all agreed upon, would be simple enough to be learned by children. An experience of some 20 years has shown me that it certainly is.

For Society

But something more is necessary before this method can be applied to adult society. When we are concerned, not with a group of a few hundred people, but with thousands, even millions, whose lives we wish to organize in this way, we must accept the principle of some sort of representation. There will have to be higher–level meetings, and these will have to deal with matters concerning a wider area. Higher-level meetings will also have to send representatives to another higher body, which will be responsible for a still wider area, and so on.

After my hopes for the success of school meetings had been confirmed by practice, I was very curious to know if a meeting of representatives would work also in the school. One day when the number of children had grown too large for one general meeting at which all could be present, I suggested the setting up of a meeting of representatives. At first the children did not like the idea; children are conservative. But, as often happens, six months later they suggested the same plan themselves, and since then this institution has become a regular part of the life of the school.

Neighborhood and Ward Meetings

Of course such meetings, if ever they are to be used by adults for the organization of society as a whole, will have a very different character from those of our children’s community. But how in practice could such methods be introduced? First of all, a Neighborhood Meeting, made up of perhaps forty families, might be set up in a particular district, uniting those who live near enough to one another, so that they could easily meet. In a town it very often happens that people do not even know their neighbors, and it will be an advantage if they are forced to take an interest in those who live close by.

The Neighborhood Meeting might embrace about 150 people, including children. About 40 of these Neighborhood Meetings might send representatives to a Ward Meeting, acting for something like 6000 people. In general it will be true to say that the wider the area the Meeting governs the less often it will need to meet. The representatives of about 40 Ward Meetings could come together in a District Meeting, acting for about 240,000 people.

District and Central Meetings

In approximately 40 or 50 District Meetings the whole population of a small country might be covered. The representatives would bring the interests of all the Districts to a Central Meeting. It is an essential condition that representatives have the confidence of the whole group: if they have that, business can usually be carried on quickly and effectively.

Functional Groups: Industries and Professions

As the whole sociocratic method depends on trust, there will be no disadvantage if, alongside the geographical representation of Neighborhood, Ward, District and Central Meetings, a second set of functional groupings be established. It seems reasonable that all industries and professions send representatives to primary, secondary and, where necessary, tertiary meetings, and that the trusted representatives of the “workers” in every field should be available to give their professional advice to the government.

I have here used the word “government”. It is not my intention to put forward a plan according to which the government itself could one day be formed on sociocratic lines. We must start from the present situation, and the only possibility is that, with the government’s consent, we make a beginning of the sociocratic method from the bottom upwards; that is, for the present, with the formation of Neighborhood groups. We, ordinary people, must just learn to talk over our common interests and to reach agreement after quiet consideration, and this can be done best in the place where we live.

Only after we have seen how difficult this is, and after, most probably, making many mistakes, will it be possible to set up meetings on a higher level. If leaders should emerge in the Neighborhood Meetings, their advice would gradually be seen to be useful in the existing Local Councils. Later, in the same way, the advice of leaders of Ward Meetings would be of increasing value.

The sociocratic method must recommend itself by the efficiency with which it works. When the governing power has learnt to trust it enough so as to allow, perhaps even to encourage, the setting up of Neighborhood Meetings, the system will be able to show what possibilities it has, and then the confidence of the governing bodies and of people at large will have a chance to grow. I can well believe that trusted leaders and representatives of Neighborhood Meetings may be allowed, or even invited, to attend Local Meetings.

These men and women will of course take no part in the voting, for sociocracy does not believe in voting; but they might be allowed a place in the centre between the “left” and the “right”. After a time it may even be deemed desirable to ask them for advice about the matter in hand, since it would previously have been discussed in their Neighborhood Meetings, and a solution sought acceptable to all. It is conceivable that, as confidence grows, certain matters might be handed over to the Neighborhood Meetings with the necessary funds to carry them out. Only when the value of the new system is realized, could the higher-level meetings be begun.

Democracy as It Might Be

Is such a development as this a fantasy? When we consider the possible success of government on the sociocratic principle, one thing is certain; it is unthinkable unless it is accompanied and supported by the conscious education of old and young in the sociocratic method. The right kind of education is essential, and here a revolution is needed in our schools. Only latterly have attempts been made in them to further the spontaneous development of the child and encourage his initiative.

Partly because the stated aim of the school is to impart knowledge and skills, and partly because people regard obedience as a virtue in itself, children have been trained to obey. We are only beginning to realize the dangers of this practice. If children are not taught to judge for themselves, they will in later life become an easy prey for the dictator. But if we really want to prepare youth to think and act for themselves, we must alter our attitude to education.

The children should not be sitting passively in rows, while the schoolmaster drills a lesson into their heads. They should be able to develop freely in children’s communities, guided and helped by those who are older acting as their comrades. Initiative should be fostered in every possible way. They should learn from the beginning to do things for themselves, and to make things necessary in their school life. But above all they should learn how to run their own community in some such way as has already been described.

A World Meeting

Finally we must return to the question of representation. We have not gone further than the government of our own country. But the great problem of the government of mankind can never be solved on a national basis. Every country is dependent for raw materials and products on other countries. It is therefore inevitable that the system of representation should be extended over a whole continent and representatives of continents join in a World Meeting to govern and order the whole world.

Our technical skill in the fields of transport and organization make something of this kind possible. Finally a World Meeting should invite representatives of all the continents to arrange a reasonable distribution of all raw materials and products, making them available for all mankind. So long as we are ruled by fear and distrust, it is impossible to solve the problems of the world. The more trust grows and the more fear diminishes, the more the problem will shrink.

A New Spirit of Reconciliation and Trust

Everything depends on a new spirit breaking through among men. May it be that, after the many centuries of fear, suspicion and hate, more and more a spirit of reconciliation and mutual trust will spread abroad. The constant practice of the art of sociocracy and of the education necessary for it seem to be the best way in which to further this spirit, upon which the real solution of all world problems depends.

(Subtitles and additional paragraphs have been added to improve readability on computer screens.)

Who Stole the American Dream

Crushing Middle-Class  Prosperity

The American Dream is of obtaining middle-class prosperity and socio-economic mobility. Hedrick Smith analyzes how it was lost in America.

The American middle class in the 1960s was the largest and most prosperous in the world. Now, the disparity between top and bottom is huge. Even the wealthiest 5% are falling behind the super-rich 1% that controls 2/3 of the nation’s wealth—trillions of dollars. The remaining 99% earn the remaining 1/3. America has the largest income disparity in the world.

Who Stole the American Dream, in its analysis of the socio-economic interactions between society, the economy, businesses and government,  also provides an excellent foundation for analyzing how a sociocratic society could function to restore the American dream.

(I’m not being revolutionary or extreme here. Just suggesting that even an understanding of sociocratic principles and  practices  would have prevented these events. They would have helped individuals make better decisions.)

Who Stole the American Dream

In Who Stole the American Dream, Smith presents a history and analysis of the 2008 economic crisis and the political ineffectiveness of Congress in correcting the systems that caused it.

Hedrick Smith was a journalist at the New York Times when he shared a Pulitzer Prize for his work on the Pentagon Papers series. He won another Pulitzer for his international reporting on Russia from 1971-1974. He has written several books, including, Russia, that are both best-sellers and used in college and university courses. His Emmy Award-winning PBS series examined systemic economic and political problems in the United States.

The book is an eminently readable, though long— 426 pages of text and another 131 of pages of back matter: Acknowledgments ; a Timeline of Key Events, Trends, and Turning Points, 1948-2012; and Notes.

I usually don’t post recommendations until I’ve completed a book.  But for that reason they sometimes don’t get posted at all. By the end of the book, I’m ready to move on to the next book and often have so many notes and comments that I don’t have time to write them. The book sits by my computer for “later” when I have the time, which never comes.

And readers would probably be so filled up from reading my comments they wouldn’t want to read the book.  So this time, I’m recommending a book before I finish its 557 pages. (Yes, I read endnotes.)

Relationship to Sociocracy

It will be a long time before we have leaders who have even heard of the fundamental principles and practices of sociocracy but an understanding of them would not only have helped individuals make better decisions, but understand why they were better. Many other books on socio-economic realities and possibilities are valuable in understanding sociocracy, but this one is particularly valuable for its analysis of what created the losses of the middle class, the 2008 financial crisis, and the incredible disparity in incomes. The facts and figures are Smith’s and the sociocratic analysis is mine. I hope I have made the distinctions clear.

The Deception of Free Markets

In 1971, the theory of free markets began to take hold. Businesses and trade associations began heavily lobbying Congress for advantageous laws and regulations. The number of companies with lobbying offices in Washington DC grew from 175 in 1971 to 2,445 in 1981. In 2012, the number of business lobbyists outnumbered members of Congress 130 to 1. The markets were hardly free, they were heavily influenced by corporate interests.

By the late 1970s, corporate CEOs began taking stock options as compensation. Sales of businesses, which often leave the workers with no pensions and end job security became very profitable for CEOs as investors.

The new market economy led to deregulation, lower taxes, and free trade that was supposed to raise the quality of life for all. Instead, middle-class wages stagnated and the rich got richer. In 2012, 60 million people were considered upper class with incomes over $100,000 in 2012, but 90 million lived at or below the poverty line of $40,00 0 for a family of four. Three million people received 2/3 of the country’s income while 300 million received 1/3. For Princeton University economist Alan Krueger this is mind-boggling. And he is used to big numbers.

Our  political leaders are in constant conflict and polarized, unable to solve basic problems.  Thinking sociocratically, majority vote could be blamed for political jockeying for position and winning elections rather than focusing on governing the country. Smith’s analysis shows that business interests may be a greater force than majority vote because they exert the power of money. Sufficient money can produce almost anything it wants.

A People in Crisis

Congress is unable to govern because it is powerless, lost in a sea of opposing forces who are not interested in the welfare of the nation. There is no common aim as there was from World War II into the 1950s. A common aim is sociocracy’s foundation. It is the basis for decision-making. Instead we have a house divided, which shall fall in one way or another.

Smith quotes British historian Arnold Toynbee’s analysis that a crisis arises in a mature society when participants no longer feel a part of that society, no longer feel they matter.  The late head of the pubic advocacy group Common Cause John Gardner said the people are part of the problem when they become cynical and disaffected. In a sociocratic society neither of these things could be true. There would be greater transparency and more accountability.

In a reversal of the dictum that power corrupts, grass-roots organizer Ernie Cortes says, “Powerlessness also corrupts.” Smith’s analysis of the economic crisis of 2008 shows how the powerlessness of middle management and white-collar workers also led to corruption. They acted as if they were no longer participants in a social economy. They were themselves lost at sea and scavenging whatever they could get, along with their co-workers.

Know Your History in Order to Change It

Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. This analysis will help to understand  what could be right in a sociocratic society and why. All the analysis is here. You just have to read between the lines and apply sociocratic principles and practices to understand how the crisis could have been prevented and how the American Dream can be restored.

Links to Amazon

Who Stole the American Dream? by Hedrick Smith (Hardcover, 2012)

Who Stole the American Dream? by Hendrick Smith (Softcover,

A Biography of Kees Boeke

Cover of Dutch Biography of Kees BoekeWell-received biography of Kees Boeke in Dutch by Daniela Hooghiemstra, a noted Dutch Biographer.

Available from Bol.com

Description

De christen-pacifist Kees Boeke (1884- 1966) wordt wel ‘onderwijshervormer’ genoemd maar hij beoogde niet minder dan de stichting van een nieuwe wereld. Toen de poging om die gemeenschap te stichten mislukte, besloot Boeke een school te stichten waar de ‘nieuwe wereld’ van de grond af opgebouwd moest worden. Deze unieke school kreeg na de Tweede Wereldoorlog een prominente leerling: prinses Beatrix. De koninklijke aandacht leek de kroon op zijn werk, maar luidde ook het begin in van de ondergang van Kees Boeke en alles waar hij altijd in geloof had.

First Implementation

Kees Boeke and Betty Cadbury

Kees Boeke and Betty Cadbury
Kees Boeke and Betty Cadbury

When WW II began to engulf Europe, the first implementation of sociocracy was achieved. Before the war, Dutch educator Cornelius “Kees” Boeke and his wife, English educator Beatrice “Betty” Cadbury, had been active internationally in Quaker peace education, predominantly in the Middle East. Boeke was a vocal pacifist and spoke against war with Hitler. When WWI began the Boekes were expelled from England. In 1914, they settled in Kees Boeke’s hometown, Bilthoven, a small community in The Netherlands. They continued their peace work, actively supported pacifists, and started several European and International peace organizations.

The First Implementation: The Childrens Community Workshop

In 1926, the Boekes founded the first sociocratic organization.       Needing a school for their children, they started the Children’s Community Workshop and began adapting Quaker egalitarian principles to its governance. By 1945, the residential school community had grown to 400 students, staff, and teachers who participated as equals in school functioning and program design.  Decisions were made by consensus and no actions taken until everyone agreed. The school still exists and functions according the same principles.

Although confined to the Netherlands and arrested by the Germans during the occupation, Kees Boeke continued to write about the abuses of power that were becoming evident in democracies. His most well-known essay is “Sociocracy: Democracy as It Might Be.”

Encouraging Self-Organization

Logo for Interaction Institute for Social ChangeIn a workshop I conducted last Sunday, one of the participants asked, “How do you encourage self-organization?” By some miracle, probably related to my being on every mailing list on anything related to sociocracy and governance, I received in my mailbox a link to an article on the  Interaction Institute for Social Change. You guessed it on  Tips for Encouraging Self-Organization by Curtis Ogden.

After some editing and additions, here are some ideas:

Encouraging Self Organization in the Environment

  • Create spaces where people from different social and work groups encounter each other in the course of the day.
  • Create open space and unscheduled time at home and the office.

In Meetings and Conversations

  • Expect engagement with decisions by asking open-ended questions.
  • Encourage people in finding their own answers
  • Ask “What should we do next?” and “What haven’t we done?” to encourage curiosity and questioning.
  • Reward innovation and risk-taking. Encourage making corrections and trying again.
  • Emphasize that we learn from mistakes. No mistakes, no  risk, no innovation.
  • Encourage people to focus on their strengths and collaborate with others who have different strengths.
  • Actively share information. Practice transparency.
  • Demonstrate self-organization in your own actions.

Most people are not encouraged to self-organize as children or adults. Most workplaces find self-organization disruptive. It’s hard to break the training of waiting for directions and not working outside them.  Changing takes both expectation, insistence, and support. Support alone won’t do it.

The California Tenure Case, Part II: Sociocracy in Schools

The California Tenure Case is evidence of just one of the systems failures in education that could be resolved with the use of sociocracy in schools. The adversarial nature of the administrative structure and imposition of standards  in education pits teachers, the school administration, unions, and state and federal governments against each other in a wars that none of them can win. Even the concept of winning ensures that the system will fail.

Conflict weakens and eventually breaks a system. Sociocracy in schools would produce a harmony of shared goals that supports productivity and is lost when each domain begins competing against the others. The education of students becomes a battle in which the students have no ability to compete. It’s a battle over students in which students have no voice. And the teachers have no power and all the responsibility.

Sociocracy doesn’t need unions to provide job security or autocratic managers to ensure quality performance. In The Netherlands, Works Councils, similar to unions, are required in all workplaces of more than 35 employees—unless they are organized sociocratically. Sociocracy is considered to protect both workers and employers rights better than Works Councils and sociocratic organizations are exempted from the Works Council requirement.

Sociocracy in Schools

In a school that is governed by the principles of sociocracy, the teachers work collaboratively to design educational programs for their students, educate themselves on a continuing basis, develop new methods for teaching, and involve students and parents in a program designed to meet both the external education requirements and the student’s interests and abilities.

The emphasis is on policy and program decisions  as equals while preserving the hierarchical structure that is most efficient for daily functioning. That means teachers and the administration meet together as equals to determine school policies and educational program decisions which are then executed on a daily basis by the principal who is responsible for implementation.

The teachers are organized in teams by responsibilities.  Within local, state, and federal mandates, teams are delegated responsibility for the curriculum, teaching materials, and classroom practices in their area: Grades K-3, social studies, math and sciences, etc. The divisions depend on the size  and purposes of the school. . The leaders of each team, their elected representatives, and the principal serve as a general management team.  The principal as general manager ensures that the policies the teachers have made are carried out and the school is also meeting local, state, and federal requirements.

In sociocracy, transparency prevails so financial records are open. As policy decisions, teachers also formulate and consent to the budgets for their areas. Transparency is essential to build trust and to ensure that all members of a collaborative process have full information.

Distributed Power & Consent

Distributed power is a fundamental principle in sociocratic governance.  Those who are responsible for the work, make the decisions that directly affect how they do it. This both relieves eh principal of an overwhelming number of decisions and moves them to the context in which they will have the most effect. School standards, policy, and program decisions that affect the whole school are made by the general management team, which is composed of the leaders and representatives of each of the teams,. Those that directly affect the teams are made by the teams.

Teachers and administrators discuss policy and program decisions as equals and the consent of all members of the team is necessary to implement them. Consent is often felt to be impossible in a working situation, and in many other situations as well, but combined with other sociocratic principles and methods it works very well and produces a strong sense of harmony and mutual respect. One key to making it work is that the work process is based on (1) moving forward and (2) testing decisions. If all members of a team can’t consent to a discussion or are hesitant about it, the team will test it to obtain more information.

Testing policies and educational programs is a part of the work process which is based on planning, doing, and measuring. The emphasis is on making a satisfying  plan (one that is both satisfying and sufficient), put it into practice, and measure results. Results are then evaluated in the next planning meeting, leading to a new or improved plan that will then be implemented and its results measured.

Integral Education and  Peer Coaching

Sociocratic schools do not use tenure to protect teachers rights or to ensure that good teachers stay. Instead they develop good teachers by providing educational opportunities and expecting teams to learn about new developments and best practices in their fields. Teachers are given  access to ongoing education, control over their classrooms, and independence in teaching methods. Student progress is measured and used to design educational programs for them. Sociocratic schools trust the teacher’s ability to educate students in a collaborative process and provides the support and materials for them to do so.

In sociocratic schools,  teachers and teachers’ aids have responsibility for their own and their colleagues’ continuing education. They evaluate and coach each other, building on their strengths while correcting weaknesses. The team is responsible for meeting their own standards, the standards of the school, as well as requirements of subject-based education associations and government requirements.

Upgrading our knowledge and skills over a lifetime is important for everyone but particularly important for teachers. Some skills are gained in the classroom, but content changes. In a five-year-period the sciences change dramatically, for example. It takes continual updating in all fields to keep up. They need more than teacher training days allocated to learn administrative systems and state laws. They need real eduction. Businesses do this for their employees on a regular basis.

Education is about more than tenure and it is a shame that teacher’s unions have spent so much money on salary and tenure fights, and their own survival, to the exclusion of other benefits that would serve teachers more comprehensively.

Click here for a copy of the decision from the Los Angeles Times.

The California Tenure Decision, Part 1: Systems Failure

Educational equality is about more than teacher-seniority rules: It is about making the schools that serve poor children more attractive places for the smartest, most ambitious people to spend their careers. To do that, those schools need excellent, stable principals who inspire confidence in great teachers. They need rich curricula that stimulate both adults and children.

Dana Goldstein in the Atlantic, 11 June 2014. Author of The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession

The California Tenure Decision

On 10 June 2014, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge, Rolf M. Treu ruled in the California Tenure Case that the tenure laws “impose a real and appreciable impact on students’ fundamental right to equality of education,” he wrote. “The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.” US Secretary of Education, Arnie Duncan, agreed, and called it a mandate to change similar “laws, practices and systems that fail to identify and support our best teachers and match them with our neediest students.”

There will be years of appeals before this action will take effect and some will argue that the California tenure laws have particularly weak standards and the arguments in this case are  not applicable to other states. But it is a serious signal to teachers’ unions and school systems that traditional methods of protecting teacher job security will have to be replaced with methods that also protect students’ rights to the opportunity for equal education.

I doubt that any person familiar with our public schools would question that the differences in quality are shocking, and not just in teacher preparation and commitment. In a school in New York City on Manhattan’s Upper West Side where the top floor was unusable because the roof was falling in, a teacher said, “You’re talking about computer skills and programming. I need rulers and pencils. Scissors.” Some schools in the same district have state of the art technology, plus rulers and pencils and scissors.

When teachers spend as much time as possible in the teacher’s lounge talking about how bad their students are and making fun of them, there is no recourse in the current system. As the California Judge learned, uncommitted and incompetent teachers are just shunted to the schools where the parents are too overburdened with poverty and lack of education themselves to complain effectively.

There are procedures for firing failing tenured teachers, but it is a long, time-consuming process to prove lack of performance. In New York City, teachers charged with misconduct are sent to reassignment centers nicknamed the rubber rooms where they just sit for months and years, on full pay, to keep them out of the classrooms. According to the Los Angeles Times, one defense witness in the California Tenure Case testified “that 1% to 3% of teachers in California are grossly ineffective.” That is 2,750 to 8,250 teachers.  According to estimates, firing this number of tenured teachers would take 12 years.

The tenure system is a holdover from an era when public school teachers — almost all women — could be fired for getting pregnant or wearing trousers instead of a dress. It was intended to protect teachers from petty bureaucrats with personal vendettas, or meddling parents trying to dictate what goes on in class.

Sandy Banks
Los Angeles Times

The Problem Is Not Tenure

The tenure system began in 1909 and has outlived its usefulness. It is credited with making the schools worse because it attracts those who are more interested in job security with summers off than in education and intellectual curiosity. Tenure is a lure that keeps those who would be happier, more productive somewhere else.

With or without  tenure, poorly performing public schools will be the same unless other reforms were made. Good teachers are hard to find and keep when core deficiencies are unaddressed. Among them:

  • opportunities for ongoing professional education,
  • better workplace conditions,
  • professional respect,
  • student support services, and
  • higher pay.

Professional Disparity in Education, Medicine, and the Law

Teachers need and often have professional educations on a par with doctors and lawyers, but the working conditions are much worse than professionals in other fields would accept. No matter how much they love healing patients, there would be a serious health crisis if doctors were asked to work under the same conditions. Purchasing their own surgical supplies, using surgery facilities and techniques they know are not the best, and paid starting salaries 30% lower than other college graduates. Even with years of experience they would be paid 10% less than other professions.

In local school administration, the expertise of teachers is routinely disrespected when decisions are made about their classrooms and students. They are on the bottom of the heap when it comes to control over education, but are blamed for all its failures.

When Michelle Rhee took charge of the Washington DC school system, one of the lowest performing school systems in the United States, she fired hundreds of uncertified teachers and teacher aids. One of the fired workers’ complaints was, “Why didn’t they give us some training? No one has ever said what we should be doing. Just that all the sudden we aren’t good enough.”

One could blame the teachers for not knowing their performance and expectations of students were far below average but that begs the question. How were they to dig out when the system was rigged against them? These problems are systemic, not the fault of teachers alone.

Our Education System Is Upside Down

In education, one absurdity is that teachers are given responsibility for educating students, but teachers have no decision-making power.  They can choose bulletin board materials and furniture arrangements, but the school principal is given autocratic authority over all decisions that affect school performance—hiring, firing, textbooks, supplies, scheduling, budgets, and within any external standards, the curriculum.

Sometimes the school board, which is not chosen for experience in the classroom, will make these decisions for a whole district, listening to textbook sales people rather teachers. Perhaps a token teacher will be on the board as a non-voting member, but only as a representative, rarely as an influential voice.

Teachers are the experts in a school system, not the school board and not the  principal. The system is upside down with those who have almost no contact with students in control of their education. The experts are on the bottom and the least expert on the top.

The Proper Engine of School Reform

According to many theories of education, the students are the experts. It’s their curiosity and focus that result in a good education. A good teacher provides the resources and serves as a resource themselves. The teacher student dynamic is key in education. Educating and supporting teachers, expecting and developing professional expertise, is where the money and time should be spent.

The focus should be on the classroom dynamic: Ongoing professional development for the teacher and developing intellectual curiosity by students.  Only when the focus is directly, no tangentially or “trickled down” to developing that dynamic will education improve.

California Tenure Case Part II discusses in more detail how the principles of sociocracy can be applied in a school system.

A copy of the decision from the Los Angeles Times.

(One of the difficulties with comparing teacher salaries with those of other professions is that only hours in the classroom are counted as hours worked. Teachers spend have again as much time preparing lessons, counseling students, talking to parents, after school and coaching activities, grading papers and homework assignments, and administrative work. With a classroom of 20-25+ students, this is not possible during the work day. Teachers work 10 months of the year but the other two months are likely to be spent on activities related to their students and future classroom work or continuing education.

Outside Experts on the Board of Directors

Image from the Getty Museum of a Council of war from the 19th century.Residential communities customarily do not have board of directors members from outside the organization. Corporations normally do, but they may not be chosen by their ability to balance expertise. Non-profit organizations and independent schools often choose board members based on their ability to raise money or influence government or foundation decision-makers.

Balanced Expertise

Balanced expertise on the board of directors steers the organization from multiple perspectives. Balance can be achieved with experts on larger community issues, on financial and  legal requirements, and areas specifically related to the mission and aim of the organization. An independent school would have an expert in education, perhaps fundraising, perhaps child development, etc. A soup kitchen will benefit from experts in food service and preparation, nutrition, perhaps motivation, perhaps efficiency in service.

From Outside

Outside expert directors can bring advice and judgements that are not influenced by possible internal biases. And they contribute new information. They cross-pollinate with ideas and cautions learned from other organizations. Condo leaders to other condo leaders. An outside expert in housing would bring information from government agencies, architects, financial institutions, etc. They may be better able to identify possible risks to the organization.

Diversity of experience is as important as technical expertise. Outside experts also relax the organization. They can confirm that the organization is following best practices and any problems are, or are not, being experienced by other organizations,

On the Board

The importance of having experts on the board of directors is the synergy created by discussion. Most organizations have a lawyer on retainer, an accountant, an insurance broker, a banker, etc. When they are on the board, however, they respond to questions and issues together, not in isolation. The legal expert comments on the advice of the food service expert. Concerns by one expert about the effect of a decision on another expert’s area can be answered in the moment. The advice of one raises concerns for another that can be discussed and resolved. The concerns of one can be resolved by a solution from another.

Even though it may seem costly and time consuming in the end it saves time. Normally a board of Directors meets 3-4 times a year for 1-2 hours. For non-profit organizations, there may be no charge for this time. In businesses, these experts are often on retainers already. In the end the time saved by not having individual meetings or telephone calls. Saved time from having to repeat conversations or making costly mistakes pay for themselves. The increased value of having more informed advice is invaluable.

With Decision-Making Authority

It is important that boards are not advisory. Decision-making authority creates accountability. Decision-makers take decisions more seriously than advisors. Some fear that decision-making power will create a board-dominated organization. That the attempt to create a more democratic organization will be undermined by “outsiders” who impose negative opinions.

However, in a sociocratic system, boards make decisions within their specific domain. The domain of the board is long-term strategic planning, financial sustainability, assessing risk, and connections to the larger environment—its market or industry. The board can be asked to make a decision when another domain is unable to resolve it. Otherwise, the board should not micro-manage or make autocratic decisions except in emergencies.

As Part of a Whole System

An organization is a system with each part having a responsibility that is essential to the whole. The whole controls its parts. The board of directors is one part of a whole system, not the controller. The board has a different responsibility than the marketing department or the kitchen or the front desk but not more power.

Outside members on the Board of Directors strengthen the organization.

(In sociocracy, what most jurisdictions call a “Board of Directors” is called a “Top Circle” to emphasize that it functions according to the rules for a circle, not the traditional rules of a Board of Directors. When a Board with the traditional rights is required by law, it is formed within the Top Circle.)

If Hospitals Were Run Like Schools

A commentary on an Op-Ed in the New York Times by Joe Nocera, “How to Fix the Schools,” 18 September 2012.

Joe Nocero’s post in the New York Times today points out that the reason the Chicago schools won’t be helped by the teacher’s union strike that began this week is that both the teacher’s union and Rahm Emanuel are both focusing on the wrong issues. He quotes Marc Tucker of the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) that has research comparing the American educational system with those of other countries and comparing successful with poor performing systems. As quoted by Nocero, Tucker points to poor education of teachers as the problem. Teacher education programs stress neither how to teach nor mastery of subject matter.

The Problem is Not Teacher Education

The education of teachers is truly horrible but why? When I was at the University of Illinois in the mid-1960s, the new dean of the school of education wrote an article for the student newspaper pointing out how bad the School of Education was and it landed on the front page of the newspaper. Embarrassing for the students, but they knew it was well. A fellow student who was required to take 12 hours of education courses took a course on visual aids for the classroom because she was a biology student and visual aids were very important. The course consisted entirely of designing bulletin boards to depict the major holidays. Four bulletin boards for 3 credits. Graduate credits. A 500-level course. This was before today’s highly developed visual aids technology but still they could have done better than bulletin boards unrelated to subject matter.

This was in the 1960s. This problem has long been understood and attempts to correct it legendary. It can’t be THE problem. Otherwise it would have been corrected.

The education of teachers is still a problem. Low standards are a problem. Lack of understanding of what is required to teach is a problem. But attempting to fix these will fix education.

If Hospitals Were Run Like Schools

The problem is how schools and school systems are organized. They are autocratic bureaucracies run by people who never set a foot in a classroom—well, maybe one or two but not for very long. They use an ineffective outdated governance system that was designed by Ford to produce identical cars on an assembly line staffed with people trained not to make decisions. It would not be advocated by any school of management in any of the colleges that have failed to educate teachers well.

Consider what the medical profession would be like if public hospitals were managed the way schools are. All purchases and procedures would be determined by a hospital board of members of the general public—usually well-meaning wives of rich men, with a token community leader thrown in. For their own family, board members use private hospitals so they have no personal experience with public hospitals. The janitorial staff would not be hired or managed by or accountable to the individual hospital. The hospital staff would have no control over cleanliness. Instruments would be purchased centrally and dispensed to the nursing staff who may never have seen them before and have to learn how to use them a few hours before they enter surgery. The same hours in which they have to set up the surgery to be sure they have an operating table and clean sheets. Education on drugs and surgical implants would come from the manufacturers.

Representatives of medical supply and drug companies would make their pitches to hospital board, not to doctors or nurses. The board might have medical consultants but they would make the final decisions based on budget and public pressure. Since their husbands or they themselves are most likely to be in business, they would make their judgements by analyzing which products come from impressive businesses, not on the quality of their educational content about which they know nothing except what the publishers tell them. Since board members represent only one socio-economic class, they decide what medical care is “good enough” other people, people who cannot afford private hospitals.

How long would it take for the most qualified and dedicated students to stop applying to medical and nursing schools? How long before medical schools lowered their standards because schools are expected to do the best they can to educate the students they actually have as well as possible. How long would hospitals resist hiring poorly educated and qualified doctors when they have patients standing in line with life threatening illnesses who at least need minimal care?

If hospitals were run the way the schools are, they would be equally unsuccessful.

How to Fix the Schools

We can fix the schools by fixing the school system. The current system, just like the medical profession under the same conditions, prevents teachers from doing their best. It also allows them not to do their best. Millions of teachers are excellent and do a fabulous job, just as doctors and nurses would do. But they do it in spite of the system, not because of it. It is not only human energy, financial resources, and the futures of children that are wasted. Millions of teachers are wasted as well. They lower their own standards because it is easier to go along than to fight. Easier to do the best then can than to try to change the system at the same time they are trying to cope with 43 children in a classroom designed for 23. If they have a classroom; they may be teaching in a hallway.

Teaching and learning require the same dedication that it takes to be or to become a lawyer or a doctor. It requires the same supports that are provided to teachers, doctors, and lawyers in the private sector.

Just like the legal system and the medical system, schools systems are an opportunity to correct the problems of society—poor nutrition, inability to speak English, unstable homes, poor preparation for employment, etc.—and are our only means to create a democratic society. One in which everyone, to the extent that they are capable, can live freely and equally.

Education can only happen with teachers and students in the classroom working together. Neither unions, nor principals, nor school boards, can be in charge of education. We need to turn the system upside down so teachers and students receive the materials and support they need.

My Pivotal Consensus Experience

In 1972 with a group of parents forming a cooperative school, predominantly young Yale faculty members who had moved to town to join a new college. We were committed to diversity and having a hard time recruiting people of color and from a different socio-economic class.

We were having an equally hard time finding appropriate space that we could afford. This was long before charter schools so we were funding the whole thing ourselves. We had been offered a space in a Presbyterian church in the center of the city, just where we wanted to be. We had had hours of discussion. Everyone consented to accept the lease except one very young African American single mother. No one wanted to either pressure her to consent or disregard her opinion or to lose her from the group. We had met several times in the previous two weeks and were exhausted, ready to take anything. It was after midnight when we finally agreed to sleep on it and meet again the next night.

After the meeting as we all went to our cars the conversations were about what we would do if she didn’t change her mind. No one agreed with her reasons but some thought we should give up the space in order to empower her personally and prove that we were serious about diversity. Others found this condescending and patronizing.

When we reassembled the next night, everyone was tense and not meeting each other’s eyes. We started the round with the young woman. She said she was willing to respect the group’s decision but still felt strongly that it would be a mistake.

One by one, every person in the room sincerely agreed with her. The space was in the basement of an all white church that was fairly conservative. Most parent cooperative schools then had been started in reaction to segregation or the teaching of evolution in schools. We would be reinforcing that view of our school if we chose that space — even though we would have a separate entrance and an address on another street. Even though we were going to be an open school and had hired teachers with fairly radical ideas, there would also be pressure to conform. It wouldn’t be a long term home and would be a bad start.

The self-assured optimism of the educated elite that believed it could change the minds of anyone with their successful progressive school and rational arguments, no matter how different their values, had melted overnight into her realism. She knew from her experience and her perspective that these people wouldn’t change — they liked who they were and it was a church where they had full control. They would be more than we could bear when we were still so new and untested.

We found other space shortly afterward.

One thing I’ve learned is that few groups are willing to spend the amount of time and listening required to work out this level of consensus. Perhaps in cohousing the aims are too diverse. Pre-move-in the task is huge and complex but the aim focused. We set aside our other aims. After move-in, all the personal aims we had deferred reemerge and exist in one place. With 65+ adults, there are a lot of aims. People with strong personal aims elsewhere don’t have that much the time or energy to spend on community aims unless they consciously make and preserve room for them.

How We Decide and Why It Matters

Book Cover for Lehrer's How We DecideA wonderfully readable update on brain research is Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide that looks at how our emotions affect decisions and what the brain tells us about it. Lehrer worked in the lab of Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel, is editor-at-large for Seed Magazine, and  publishes regularly in major magazines and newspapers. He has both the education to interpret brain research and the ability to write about it clearly — welcome ability. And the results of this research are fascinating.

The brain is constantly growing and changing based on the information it receives, whether that information is emotional, social, or physical. Our “gut” reactions  are fast and accurate because our brain has decoded the information faster than we could rationally analyze it. First we know, then we know we know. Unfortunately, our gut feelings are often difficult to explain or even understand and we ignore them, going instead for the response that sounds right.

One of the subjects Lehrer examines is expertise. The reason sociocratic organization works is that it establishes feedback loops that provide information about performance. Malcolm Gladwell has reported that people become proficient when they have worked at something for 10,000 hours. The Beatles were able to outperform other bands at such a  young age because as teenagers they had a unique ability to perform frequently. Lehrer’s research shows that isn’t all. The expertise comes from the feedback received while gaining that experience. The interactions and measurements that come from audience responses and the musician’s experimentation. It isn’t the playing; it’s the recognition of mistakes. Analyzing one’s mistakes improves performance but recognizing mistakes is more likely to happen with an audience.

The sociocratic organizational structure is designed to ensure feedback. Measurement and analysis are fundamental at all levels. Looking at what is working and what is not. Lehrer talks with Bill Robertie who has become a world-class expert not only chess but in poker and backgammon. Unless all that practice includes analysis of his decisions and their result, his play would not have improved. And negative feedback, he says, was the best kind. We learn from our mistakes.

A fascinating study by Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford, looked at the results of praise on children. Half were praised for their intelligence, the other half for their hard work. In later studies, those who had been praised for hard work actually performed better. Those praised for their intelligence were careful to choose easy work in order to retain the view of themselves as intelligent while those praised for working hard, worked harder and chose the harder studies that allowed them learn more. The differences were not just “statistically significant”. Those praised for working harder raised their scores by 30%. The scores for those praised for their intelligence fell by 20%.

Loss aversion fundamentally affects our decision-making in all areas of our lives, and opens us to manipulation by marketers and unreasonable responses to news, to information about the stock market, for example.

Impulsivity is a higher predictor of low SAT scores than academic performance as early as kindergarten. Brain development in children diagnosed with ADHD is on average 3.5 years behind that of other children. Brain research looks at all these phenomenon and studies how one brain functions in the face of the same emotional desires as another, and which one is successful in achieving a satisfactory solution. And the results are unexpected and unpredictable.

The ability to achieve a clean-slate, a brain ready for making new association that lead to new insights, is essential. The insight is achieved in a flash of energy, then the slate is clean again, waiting. Herbert Simon said, “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

Lehrer also reports on studies of satisfaction — one shows that for each hour of increased time commuting, one needs to earn $40,000 more to make the commute worth it.

A striking conclusion is that anyone who wants to make difficult decisions better or more often, needs a more emotional thought process. Once one  has the education and the information, time spent consciously  contemplating the alternatives will probably be counter-productive. “The hardest calls are the ones that require the most feeling.”

Research like this has led to a change in how authority is viewed everywhere from the cockpit of major airlines to hospital surgeries. Staffs are trained to question authority when things don’t feel right. Don’t presume that the person with the degree or the title is making the best decision. Decision-making in complex pressure-driven situations is too hard for one brain to sort out.

An excellent and well-written book that is highly recommended.

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer. Boston and NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. To buy the paperback at Amazon.