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New report: Strengthening the civic mission of charter schools

Monday, January 9th, 2012

In a new report by AEI’s Program on American Citizenship, Cheryl Miller and the Center on Reinventing Public Public Education’s Robin Lake examine the role that charter schools play in strengthening civic education. As the report explains,

Charter schools provide an intriguing opportunity to rethink the role of public schools in preparing students to become informed and engaged participants in the American political system. As public schools of choice, charter schools are freed from many rules and regulations that can inhibit innovation and improvement. They can readily adopt best practices in civic education and encourage (or even mandate) extracurricular activities to enhance civic learning. With their decentralized approach to administration, they can allow parents and students a far greater role in school governance than they would have in traditional public schools.

In exchange for that flexibility, charter schools must define a clear mission and performance outcomes for themselves. In service of their chosen missions, high-performing charters seek to forge a transformative school culture for their students—expressed in slogans on hallway placards, banners, and T-shirts, and heard in chants, ceremonies, and codes of conduct. Successful charters create a culture in which everyone associated with the school is united around a common mission, enabling them to articulate goals and aspirations that might otherwise be hampered by constituency politics and parental objections. Charter school leaders can (and do) speak forthrightly about the need to teach students good social skills, instill among their pupils a sense of community, and encourage students to make positive change in the world.

This unique autonomy coupled with a strong mission orientation would seem to be a winning combination for civic education. Yet, even as charter schooling has been at the forefront of education reform efforts, we know remarkably little about how these schools approach this critical dimension of education. What have charter schools done with the opportunity to rethink civic education? Are there lessons to be learned? Are there challenges that impede their ability to teach citizenship?

These are the questions the report seeks to shed some light on. Key points include:

  • Charter schools have a potentially powerful role to play as trendsetters for civic learning and can usefully remind educators and policymakers of the many purposes of the schoolhouse.
  • Some charter schools teach civics through student activism. One charter founder tells students: “Do politics before it does you. Your situation won’t change because we, whiteys, created a charter school for you.” Others place a premium on character education or volunteering.
  • Clear objectives and well-defined metrics, not vague buzzwords, are crucial to overcoming the civics achievement gap and making civics a meaningful part of the school mission.

The report, “Strengthening the Civic Mission of Charter Schools,” is available in full here.