Renewing the Civic Mission of Schools

For democracy to flourish, public education must play a central role in promoting responsible moral action that serves the common good by Charles C. Haynes and Terry Pickeral

Ask a roomful of school leaders to describe the civic mission of their schools and the first response will likely be an awkward silence. Of course, administrators know they have a civic mission. Public schools, after all, were founded to prepare young people to be informed, engaged and ethical citizens in our democracy. But in this era of high-stakes testing, who has time to contemplate mission statements — much less emphasize civic learning in the crowded, overburdened school day?

If school leaders did take time to dig out mission statements, many would find them chock full of lofty sentiments about “responsible citizens” who will be “contributing members in a global society.” Yet rhetoric about good citizenship doesn’t always translate into curriculum, pedagogy, assessments and school climate focused on graduating students who are active, principled American citizens.

The lack of attention to the civic mission of schools puts the American experiment in democratic freedom at risk. Reading and math are important — very important. But if we care about the health of our nation, then we must be more concerned about what kind of citizens do the math and read the books. “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom,” warned Benjamin Franklin. “As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”

Democracy Labs
A few years ago, advocates of civic education, character education, service-learning and social and emotional learning came together to articulate a shared vision for what we called “civic character,” broadly defined as responsible moral action that serves the common good. All agreed that the aim of schools must be “to graduate students of good character who are intellectually prepared, civically engaged and compassionate members of the community.” Among other qualities, young people with strong civic character:

Getting Students in the Game for 21st-Century Civics by SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR

Our nation’s public schools were founded for civic purposes — to help create citizens who had the knowledge, skills and virtues to sustain and strengthen democracy within an ever-more diverse population.

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value and demonstrate honesty, personal integrity and respect for others;

understand and effectively manage their emotions and behavior;

act toward others with empathy and caring;

resolve differences in constructive ways;

understand how to participate in the political process and democratic institutions that shape public policy;

exercise leadership for social justice;

work to counter prejudice and discrimination;

think critically and creatively about local issues, state and national affairs, and world events; and

contribute time and resources to building community and solving problems.

No one is born with strong civic character — no one is born knowing how to be an engaged, moral citizen in a democratic society. That’s why we believe public schools must be laboratories of democracy and freedom, places where students become responsible and caring citizens who act to build safe, just and free societies locally, nationally and internationally.

To become laboratories of democratic freedom, schools need to move beyond a narrow understanding of civic education that confines civic learning largely to social studies classrooms. Of course, knowledge of our framing documents and the functions of government is critical. But preparation for citizenship also requires virtues and skills acquired through active civic engagement. By actually practicing freedom and democracy, students confront the challenges of self-government, including the difficult task of balancing a commitment to individual rights with a concern for the common good.

Schools committed to this civic mission may carry it out in various ways depending on the age of the students, the size of the school, the needs of the local community and other factors. But they all ensure that pedagogical decisions, including instructional and assessment practices, extend opportunities for civic learning beyond the classroom.

Consider Fairview Elementary School, a predominantly Hispanic public school in Modesto, Calif., where students, parents and teachers are all given a meaningful voice in shaping the life of the school. As a First Amendment School (an initiative started seven years ago by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development and the First Amendment Center), Fairview is a school where students learn about democracy and freedom by actually practicing democracy and freedom.

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In October, schools and communities nationwide will participate in the National Learn and Serve Challenge to spotlight the value of service learning. Educators can use the challenge to identify and secure resources to launch or expand service learning in their school districts.

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It doesn’t happen overnight. In the first year as a First Amendment School, students were told they could vote on whether to have a school uniform. When a class of 6th graders discovered the student vote was just for show — that it wouldn’t actually affect the decision — they decided to boycott the election. That inspired the principal to rethink the issue and give the kids a vote that counts, though he explained the parent vote had to count more. Satisfied they would have a voice, the 6th graders cast their ballots.

As the work of creating a more democratic school progressed, students began to exercise their First Amendment rights with responsibility. Several years ago, to cite one telling incident, after a student got into trouble for bringing a BB gun to school, the students petitioned the city to prevent ice cream trucks that park in front of the school from selling BB guns.

Today, Fairview students are given many opportunities to participate in decisions about school life. Parents are encouraged to understand and apply their First Amendment freedoms to advocate for changes they believe are needed. Teachers are part of a collaborative leadership that takes all members of the school community seriously.

Fairview Principal Rob Williams puts it this way: “At the end of our seventh year as a First Amendment School, there is strong evidence that students are better prepared for active engagement in school and community. Students write personal academic goals and attain these goals. The number of proficient students has increased. Students are more vocal about what is working in classrooms and school. Teachers acknowledge that there is a collaborative norm to work together, no matter what differences exist. … There is much to show what happens when a school is focused on its civic purpose.”

School Examples
Other schools are getting the message. A newly formed elementary school with a strong civic mission is the Academy for Civic Engagement at Lonnie B. Nelson Elementary School in the Richland County School District 2 in Columbia, S.C. A magnet school, the academy was founded to engage students in civic action aligned with academic content. Students will build partnerships with local government and local businesses as they learn to translate civic education into civic engagement.

“As I see it, the very survival of our democracy hinges on our ability to create responsible citizens,” says the district’s superintendent, Steve Hefner. “Clearly, this is one of the most essential requirements of public school education. I am very excited about the Academy for Civic Engagement that we have established in Richland 2 because it provides explicit instruction and experiences for developing leadership. By fostering civic engagement, in-depth knowledge of government and politics, involvement in school governance and a philanthropic spirit through meaningful service-learning activities, we are creating the public our nation needs.”

Schools that have being doing this work for years know how well it works. One such school is Federal Hocking High School in Stewart, Ohio, located in rural Appalachia. Since 1992, under the leadership of Principal George Wood, Federal Hocking has lived out its civic mission by giving students and staff a real voice in decision making. Students serve on all school committees, participating in everything from revising the student handbook to hiring faculty. And the staff is entrusted with all major decisions regarding the curriculum. (See related story, page 20.)

“The problem,” says Wood, “is that students often find themselves preached to about such values instead of practicing them. That’s why our efforts have been to focus on practice rather than exhortation. In everything we do, classroom teaching practices, school governance, student experiences both inside and outside of school, assessment, even the organization of the school day, is done with an eye toward developing democratic community.”

Another powerful example of a civic mission that permeates school culture and transforms lives is the Cesar Chavez Public Charter School for Public Policy in Washington, D.C. The school was founded in 1998 by Irasema Salcido, a Mexican immigrant with a vision to provide the poorest students with the best education. She organized her first school to focus on public policy to make sure “kids in the district would have a way of being involved in the decision making of what’s happening in the city. … Congress is here, think tanks are here, everything is here.”

The extraordinary success of the Cesar Chavez school — every graduate, for example, has been admitted to at least one college or university — led to an expansion to three campuses that today serve more than 1,200 predominantly African-American and Hispanic students in grades 6-12. Public-policy issues are integrated across the curriculum with the aim of preparing civically engaged leaders who are able to affect change in the society around them.

Today, more than ever, our nation needs schools like these — schools where the very purpose of schooling is to shape the civic habits of the mind and heart necessary to sustain and expand the American experiment in freedom and justice in the 21st century.

Creating Opportunities
Here are six steps school district leaders can take to integrate and sustain quality opportunities for students to acquire and enhance their civic character:

Review your mission statement and make a commitment to act on the district’s vision for good citizenship. Does the district have a clear, compelling civic mission? And, if so, is it widely understood and supported by administrators, teachers, parents and students?

Identify the civic competencies desired of students and appropriate meas-urements to document achievement. Does the district focus on civic knowledge, civic skills and civic dispositions?

Civic-related knowledge, both historical and contemporary, is an understanding of the structure and mechanics of constitutional government and knowing who the local political actors are and how democratic institutions function. Cognitive and participative skills (and associated behaviors) provide the capacity to understand and analyze data about government and local issues as well as help a student resolve conflict as part of a group. Core civic dispositions (motivations for behavior and values/attitudes) include support for justice and equality and a sense of personal responsibility. Participation-related dispositions include support for norms of participation and expectations of actual political or social involvement.

Limiting student competencies to any of these three outcomes greatly reduces their ability to be active principled citizens now and in the future. Therefore, school district leaders should ensure civic competencies are comprehensive and associated with appropriate assessments. In addition, civic competencies and corresponding assessments need to be complementary and not competitive with other content outcomes and reported internally and externally as part of the district’s accountability system.

Identify the highest-quality pedagogies that most effectively lead to those student competencies.

To ensure students can acquire and enhance civic knowledge, skills and dispositions, leaders need to identify and support corresponding teaching and learning strategies. For example, classroom-based instruction leads to an understanding of facts (knowledge) while active and community-based strategies more effectively lead to skill development, and inquiry-based and problem-based instruction assists students to develop civic dispositions.

Leaders must provide quality professional development opportunities for teachers to increase their skills to appropriately teach to each competency and use student assessments to continuously improve teacher performance.

Additional Resources

Charles Haynes and Terry Pickeral suggest these web-based resources relating to their article:

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Cultivate and sustain a school environment consistent with these pedagogies — a “civic climate” that models the desired competencies.

The school’s climate, the quality and character of school life, should reflect democratic norms and values in interpersonal relationships, teaching, learning, leadership practices and organizational structures. Leaders have the responsibility to ensure that the school climate fosters democratic values for all stakeholders and contributes to a satisfying life in a democratic society. In addition, leaders must model civic character in their own values and actions.

Propose policies that support school climate, pedagogies, competencies and assessments to ensure civic learning is an essential component of every student’s education experience.

Leaders need to support a set of policies that make schools accountable for their civic mission. It is not enough that a school’s mission statement establishes its civic mission; leaders must ensure hiring, professional development, school-community collaboration, accountability and similar policies reflect a firm commitment to civic development as a core purpose of education. Leaders must exhibit the political will to actively support civic learning in the face of many current and future challenges that place civic learning as a secondary outcome that is significant but not essential.

Articulate and implement a clear and compelling vision for -developing good moral character.

Because civic character is responsible moral action that serves the common good, quality character education should be at the heart of every public school mission. “To educate a person in mind and not in morals,” said Theodore Roosevelt, “is to educate a menace to society.”

The Nation’s Character
The character of a nation is determined by the character of its people. Yes, we have laws and courts to protect our freedoms and sustain our democracy. But all of the lawyers, judges and politicians put together cannot guarantee the future of our republic unless schools are committed to educating people of compassion, courage and conviction.

That was the underlying message of a speech by Judge Learned Hand, given on May 21, 1944, at another critical moment when our nation’s character was sorely tested. He was speaking in New York City’s Central Park to a gathering of mostly new American citizens, many of whom had come from nations with plenty of laws and constitutions but no freedom. Like so many before and since, they came here seeking freedom and democracy.

This is what he said: “I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there, it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it.”

Charles Haynes is senior scholar with the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org. Terry Pickeral is executive director of the National Center for Learning and Citizenship at the Education Commission of the States in Denver, Colo.