Breeding Citizenship Through Community in School

School improvement initiatives can recognize the school's potential to promote civic development by ERIC SCHAPS AND CATHERINE C. LEWIS

How can public education help prepare our youth to sustain a just and humane democracy?


This question is not new. From Horace Mann to John Dewey to Ernest Boyer, our leading thinkers in education have been as concerned with citizenship and character as with academic matters. In fact, for most of our history as a nation, preparation for citizenship has been the primary goal of public schooling. Only since Sputnik has concern for academic achievement eclipsed the focus on character and citizenship.

The Good Citizen
Any answer to questions about what schools can do to foster good citizens rests on how the essential qualities of citizenship are conceived. While this topic is best treated at book length, three qualities are central to most conceptions of citizenship.

First is deep regard for self and for others. Good citizens are neither doormats nor narcissists, neither blindly self-sacrificing nor ruggedly self-serving. They speak up strongly for what they believe and want, but they also try hard to hear, understand and accommodate the needs and perspectives of others. Good citizens are tolerant, even appreciative, of the many differences among us because they have learned to see transcending commonalties and underlying complexities.

Second, good citizens are personally committed to the core values of justice and caring. They try to align their heads and hearts-their words and deeds-in service of the values broadly shared across diverse American communities, values such as fairness, honesty, kindness, responsibility and compassion. Good citizens work to develop in themselves the considerable thoughtfulness and self-control needed to achieve this alignment.

Lastly, good citizens strive to always be civil and considerate in their interactions with others. In small as well as large ways, their interpersonal behavior reflects their values, and their considerate actions prompt others to respond in kind. Thus, good citizens' daily behavior provides both lubricant and glue in our diverse, fast-paced society.

These elements of citizenship have cognitive, affective and behavioral dimensions, all of which are learned. This learning is gradual and diffuse, beginning in infancy and continuing throughout life-not just in school between the ages of 5 and 18. But school is the first public venue most children experience, and the most important in terms of intensity of exposure and consequences for later success.

Schools inescapably influence children's civic development through the content they teach directly and, perhaps more importantly, through the hidden curriculum of relationships with others, classroom management and discipline and organizational climate and policies.

A Sense of Community
Many current school improvement initiatives recognize in some way the school's potential to promote civic development. These initiatives may require, for example, students to participate in service learning activities such as local clean-up programs or assistance to the elderly, or they may advocate character development through direct teaching and modeling of core values in school.

Another priority, which is much less recognized but equally important to citizenship, is building students' sense of community through their experience of the school as a caring and inclusive community. Over the past 17 years, this emphasis has become central to the school improvement work of the Developmental Studies Center because our research has shown its significant positive effects on many aspects of children's social, ethical and civic development.

What is a sense of community? It is a student's experience of being a valued, influential, contributing participant in a group whose members are committed to each other's learning, growth and welfare.

We and our colleagues have measured students' perceptions of their schools as caring communities with questionnaires that assess their agreement with statements such as: "People in this school care about each other," "Students in this school help each other, even if they are not friends," "I feel I can talk to the teachers in this school about the things that are bothering me," and "My school is like a family."

Our research shows that students' sense of community has two major components: (1) their sense of influence or "say" in the classroom and (2) their experience of the classroom and school as supportive. The higher a student's sense of community, the more likely the student is to show a wide range of positive characteristics, including many directly related to the major dimensions of citizenship, such as empathy, concern for others, enjoyment of helping others, kindness and helpfulness, skills in conflict resolution, altruistic behavior and social competence.

Students who demonstrate these traits are also less likely to feel lonely at school or to use alcohol or marijuana.

Why does experiencing a school as a caring community benefit students in these ways? Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, in their book Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior, pointed out that belonging, control over the environment and a sense of competence are basic human needs. A school that is a caring community helps students meet all three needs by providing them with an environment rich in friendships and connection, a say in shaping that environment and meaningful, important learning. In turn, students come to care about their school and to take its values seriously.

Importance of Community
It is striking to note how similar community building in school is to the process by which, until 50 years ago, most Americans believed virtue developed in an entire citizenry. According to the political theory that prevailed from this country's inception through the mid-20th century, the motivation for an individual to be virtuous stemmed from "a sense of belonging, a concern for the whole, a moral bond with the community whose fate is at stake," according to Harvard Professor Michael Sandel's article, "America's Search for a New Public Philosophy," in the March 1996 Atlantic Monthly.

That bond was thought to be cultivated, Sandel adds, by "deliberating with fellow citizens about the common good and helping to shape the destiny of the political community." In essence, methods for building community in school are an age-appropriate translation of the civic processes envisioned by Thomas Jefferson, Jane Addams, Louis Brandeis and many others. As such, sense of community has a long and distinguished record as the foundation for a caring, principled citizenry.

One Cautionary Note
Until recently, we were confident that building students' sense of community naturally enhanced students' academic learning along with their social and ethical development. The logic seemed compelling: The more strongly students bond to a school, the more committed they will be to its norms and goals, including academic achievement. But we are no longer so sure that this synergy between academic and civic learning is inevitable.

Our recent experience suggests that in working to build community, some teachers and administrators initially de-emphasize academic learning. For example, they may try to demonstrate caring for students by accepting poor work. However, as educators become proficient at building community, they find ways to show a fuller caring by conveying high academic standards.

Our recent intervention study with six school districts across the United States found that all schools that succeeded in building community improved students' civic, social and ethical outcomes. However, only one district showed accompanying academic gains. This district was the only one that strongly emphasized both academic achievement and student community and measured both through performance assessments.

We do not know whether it was the sustained emphasis on academics and on community as a vehicle to build citizenship, their performance assessment or the two factors combined that accounted for the gains in this case. But the synergistic power of a dual focus on academics and student community is suggested by recent work on Japanese education. It is sobering to note, however, that despite the demonstrated power of student community as a vehicle to achieve citizenship and character and the relative ease of assessing student community, few U.S. districts emphasize and assess it in a sustained way.

Principals and district leaders today find community-building activities attractive because most are non-controversial and effective. School community-building activities offer logistical ease of organization and supervision compared with off-campus service projects, and they can be embedded in school routines in ways that may be difficult to accomplish with outside service learning activities. But perhaps the most basic argument in favor of careful, deliberate attention to community building is the alternative that schools fail to recognize and harness this critical influence on citizenship.

As Yale child psychiatrist James Comer has said, "In every interaction, you are either building community or destroying community." Schools have no choice about whether to shape citizenship and character. Every aspect of school organization and climate-from discipline policy to fund-raising strategy-does so. The only choice is whether to do it well.

Eric Schaps is president of the Developmental Studies Center, 2000 Embarcadero, Suite 305, Oakland, Calif. 94606-5300. E-mail: eric-schaps@devstu.org. Catherine Lewis, a senior researcher with the center, is the author of Educating Hearts and Minds.