"Show Me What Democracy Looks Like"

Our guest author today is John McCrann, a Math teacher and experiential educator at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City. John is a member of the America Achieves Fellowship, Youth Opportunities Program, and Teacher Leader Study Group. He tweets at @JohnTroutMcCran.

New York City’s third through eighth graders are in the middle of state tests, and many of our city’s citizens have taken strong positions on the value (or lack thereof) of these assessments.  The protests, arguments and activism surrounding these tests remind me of a day when I was a substitute civics teacher during summer school.  “I need help," Charlotte said as she approached my desk, “what is democracy?"

On that day, my mind flashed to a scene I witnessed outside the White House in the spring of 2003.  On one side of the fence, protestors shouted: “Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!”  On the other side worked an administration who had invaded another country in an effort to “expand democracy." Passionate, bright people on both sides of that fence believed in the idea that Charlotte was asking about, but came to very different conclusions about how to enact the concept. 

At my school, Harvest Collegiate High School, we teach about democracy every day, yet a large portion of what we do is dictated by state standardized tests, which are undemocratic; a small group of people make decisions that control many citizens (including students, teachers, and families).

Last spring, I developed assessments with a group of teachers, state DoE officials, coaches from the Institute for Student Achievement and the union. We created a series of Common Core-aligned performance tasks for math classes across the city, in accordance with the city’s new teacher evaluation system.  We began by thinking deeply about each math discipline, reading texts by leading thinkers in math education (such as Driscoll and Wu), debating, and changing the language of certain items to meet our students’ needs.  We brought the tasks to students in our classes and shared their work and feedback with the group to use as evidence as we continued to improve it.  A group of stakeholders from various backgrounds reading, working, arguing, and thinking together: “this is what democracy looks like."

While I am not an expert in the latest psychometric techniques, my expertise lies in the mathematical thinking of Michael, Joanne, Deshawn and the other students in my class.  I tailored the tasks to meet their learning goals, and structured items for their zones of proximal development, eliciting much more meaningful data about them.

Many argue that top-down systems are both efficient and necessary to prevent corruption while assessing student learning.  Yet these systems have shown a propensity for high cost, inefficiency, and corruption. There is a growing body of research that suggests that these kinds of assessments are ineffective measures of future academic success.  Accountability was not invented by today’s testing regime; progressive educators (such as Dewey, Freire, Horton, and Meier) argued for accountability systems long before today’s tests. Testing advocates suggest that we are in a debate about accountability, or a lack-thereof; however, the testing debate is actually about two different visions of accountability.  Both visions come with challenges, but only one embodies democratic principles.

The process in which I engaged to create performance tasks can be replicated to create Common Core-aligned performance tasks. These tasks, while not themselves standardized, empower teacher leaders and school communities while providing insights into learning that only come from deep classroom relationships. State legislators can use this work as a model to implement forms of assessment that place power in the hands of many. 

The school where I taught last year, The Bronx Lab School, has what we called “Words to Live By.”  I think of one of these phrases when I think about assessment: “You are what you measure.”  By measuring student learning through assessments created by a select few, we miss out on the opportunity to allow community-based knowledge and grassroots participation, and instead become a system that devalues individual participation.

To be a system that promotes democratic ideals, we cannot simply ask students about the meaning of democracy in civics class.  We must show Charlotte and the rest of our students “what democracy looks like” by incorporating democratic principles into every aspect of our school structure, starting with the way we measure student learning.

- John McCrann



thanks for this thought-provoking essay - refreshing to read connections between classroom practice and the biggest ideas in our culture. your point about the two visions of accountability (ugly word) provides an important re-framing of the recent controversies. your advocacy of the thinking-in-context of actual students and reshaping shared products in light of experience sounds very deweyish.

the assessment-building process you participated in felt democratic. after all, you participated with a bunch of other folks, including other actual classroom teachers. do you think your products felt democratic to other teachers in the huge NYCDOE system? how did you get selected to have this big say - were you elected by your colleagues, the students, the families?

perhaps we agree that what you're describing "looked like" democracy in some senses - but not in some of the most important ways - like drawing on the experience and best deliberations of the majority of the people affected? what should we actually take and implement from the experience you wrote about here?


Andy, Thank you for your feedback. You bring up a very important point about this work.

I am not advocating that the product which came out of our team imposed on anyone else in the DOE, but suggesting instead that the process we used is a way to get teachers working together developing community-based assessment strategies that will serve the needs of their community.

I'm interested in thinking with you and others about the nitty gritty of how to show value for democratic ideals through assessment systems, but it seems to me that a first step in doing this work is for all of us to acknowledge that these values are important. One thing we should all be able to agree on is in this discussion is that state mandated standardized testing works against this kind of democratic community control.

What incentives do you think the NYCDOE and our union could put in place that would promote the integration of democratic values into assessment? How could we design systems for student promotion and teacher evaluation that would integrate these values? What examples do you see (from around the world? from history? from down the block?) of systems that do a good job of showing what democracy looks like in assessment?