Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Education (EdD)


College of Education and Human Services


Educational Foundations

Thesis Sponsor/Dissertation Chair/Project Chair

Jaime Grinberg

Committee Member

Tamara Lucas

Committee Member

Kathryn Herr


We live in an inequitable society. Despite our democratic governments and liberal democratic states, citizens do not enjoy their rights and do not carry their duties equally. This ought to not be so. Scholars of democracy claim that power mechanisms which allow privileged groups to prevail must be eradicated and participatory democracy, as it was envisioned, must be restored. Our public spheres should be replenished with active citizens arguing and shaping our common world. For many this important role can be only carried out through education and more particularly through democratic education. Proponents of democratic education claim that we must educate the younger generations, the citizens to be, for participating and shaping democracy. To do so well, we should follow radical visions of democracy, and employ progressive and reconstructivist pedagogies which acknowledge children's role in shaping democracy.

However, this vision of democratic education is underpinned by distributive conceptions of power. Such notions are founded on sociological analysis of stratification and thus complicate the way in which democratic education scholars understand everyday power in the classroom in three ways. First, contributors to this discourse often reduce power inequalities to social references inequalities. Second, due to this emphasis of social references, students' individual manifestations of enacting power and agency are often overlooked. Third, despite the desire to emancipate youth from the injustice that power inequalities create, scholars of power in education employ preconceived notions of liberation and do not explore youth's perceptions and meanings of power in the class in their own voices. Accordingly, despite the desire to empower students, they are viewed as entities that can be filled with power by adults and not as persons who have, know, or enact power by themselves. I argue that students' own meanings and use of everyday power should inform emancipatory and democratic understandings of power and consequently also attempts to transform classrooms into democratic spaces of possibilities. I also believe that these conceptions should be explored with students and in students' own voices.

By utilizing interpretive and constructivist qualitative methods in this dissertation, I explored what meanings students attribute to power and to the ways in which they exercise their influence as they expressed in their own voices in a middle school in Northern New Jersey that is described by the school and district as influenced by principles of a democratic reform in its pedagogy, known as the Small Schools reform. I identified four categories in the participants' meanings of power, as I elaborate below. These categories, when viewed together, show that students' meanings of everyday power appropriate action-based theories of power, which are meaningfully different from distributive theories of power, and also clarify important confusions of terms related to power. For these reasons, I suggest a new understanding of power in democratic education, which strengthens the role that students carry in democratic education through their own voices while also refraining from some confusions of terms that may jeopardize the democratic education vision.

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