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Democracy Prep and civic education

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

In the first in a series of in-depth case studies by the AEI Program on American Citizenship exploring how top-performing charter schools have incorporated civic learning in their school curriculum and school culture, AEI’s Daniel Lautzenheiser and Andrew P. Kelly take a look at the Democracy Prep Public Schools network in New York City.

You may remember Democracy Prep as the school whose fourth grade students told Americans in October to “vote for somebody” in a viral Youtube video, sung to the tune of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call me Maybe.” Not to be outdone, now sixth grade students at the school have just released a video about voting, this time sung to the tune of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.”

In their report, titled “Charter Schools as Nation Builders: Democracy Prep and Civic Education,” Lautzenheiser and Kelly explore how Democracy Prep goes about getting its students excited about civic activism. As they note, the civic focus is integral to the school’s fiber: “The network’s motto—“Work hard. Go to college. Change the world!”—couples the “no-excuses” charter school movement’s emphasis on student achievement with a decidedly civic focus. This pairing is in the schools’ DNA; students and parents are exposed to an explicit and unapologetic emphasis on civic education from day one. As [Seth] Andrew [the school’s founder and superintendent] quipped at a 2012 event at the Brookings Institution, “We are called Democracy Prep, not Generic Prep.”

Lautzenheiser and Kelly continue, outlining their goals for the case study:

The fact that Democracy Prep is a charter school is crucial to its civic mission. Andrew views charter schooling as an ideal venue for experimenting with exactly how to teach citizenship. When it comes to civic education, Andrew argues, “The charter sector can start to model best practices . . . and really take risks”—such as sending a fleet of students to the streets of Harlem in a GOTV campaign. And if charters unearth new approaches, there is “no reason a traditional district school can’t also do it.”

Of course, civic education has many dimensions. We might think of citizenship as a body of content knowledge that is critical to understanding the history and political structure of the United States: what amendments are in the Bill of Rights, why the Civil War occurred, and why the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was important. Others may cast civic education as an effort to impart a set of dispositions or values, such as attachment to one’s country, being tolerant of others, following rules, and volunteering. Finally, we might think of civic education as the training needed to engage in the activities of citizenship—thinking critically about policy issues, voting, writing a letter to a congressman, or mobilizing others to take part in politics.

Citizens, parents, and teachers often have very different ideas of what schools should teach when it comes to civic education. One study of attitudes among social studies teachers and the general public found that the public was nearly twice as likely as teachers to say that schools should be teaching basic facts about American history and government. Meanwhile, teachers were more likely to say schools should prioritize civic behaviors, like voting and community service.

As such, defining what it means to teach citizenship is difficult. Rather than a discrete body of content or skills, civic education is perhaps better understood as a combination of content knowledge, values orientation, and behaviors expected of US citizens. In this brief, we do not attempt to define civic education and then evaluate Democracy Prep relative to some ideal model. Instead, our objective is to describe Democracy Prep’s unique approach to teaching citizenship and discuss the lessons that other schools might learn from one charter school network’s experience. With civic education increasingly marginalized because of testing and accountability demands that focus on reading and math, insights from schools built around citizenship are much needed.

 Read the whole report here.