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Democracy Prep and civic education

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.

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AEI Report: Charter Schools as Nation Builders: Democracy Prep and Civic Education

Charter Schools as Nation Builders: Democracy Prep and Civic Education
By Daniel Lautzenheiser and Andrew P. Kelly
(January 16, 2013)

On a sunny Tuesday in June, the streets of Harlem, New York City, are filled with the usual midday crowd hustling in and out of subway stations and eating hurried lunches. One thing they are most decidedly not doing is voting. And this is a disappointment for a small army of schoolchildren dressed in bright yellow shirts.

The students in yellow attend one of the charter schools in the Democracy Prep Public Schools network and, with the help of their teachers and several parent volunteers, are waging a Get Out the Vote (GOTV) campaign. The occasion is the Democratic congressional primary for New York’s 15th Congressional District, which encompasses upper Manhattan (including Columbia University, Washington Heights, and Harlem) and surrounding locales. Congressional primaries are typically low-turnout affairs in which incumbents have a massive advantage.

Download Full Report as PDF

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Democracy Prep students: vote for somebody


Fourth grade students at Harlem Prep, part of  Democracy Prep Public Schools (one of the charter school networks profiled in Strengthening the Civic Mission of Charter Schools), have created a catchy song, sung to the tune of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call me Maybe,” encouraging eligible voters to get out and vote this November 6. Check it out.

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Preparing for democracy

Over at the “Rick Hess Straight Up” blog at Education Week, AEI’s Rick Hess highlights our new series of case studies on teaching citizenship in charter schools. Providing some helpful background as to why we think these case studies are important, Hess writes: “Amidst our “achievement-gap” drenched discourse, it’s easy to slight other educational priorities–like, say, the obligation of schools to teach, prepare, and equip students to be good and responsible citizens. As I noted in The Same Thing Over and Over, since our nation’s founding, schools have been asked to inculcate good citizenship with at least as much urgency as they’ve been asked to promote literacy and numeracy.”

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The Civic Transformation of Harlem Schools

Seth Andrew, the founder of Democracy Prep Charter School, was nominated for the Hometown Hero in Education Award from the New York Daily News for his work in transforming schools in Harlem. Since founding his first school in 2005, Andrew has created seven others dedicated to preparing responsible and engaged citizens, writes Ben Chapman in the Daily News.

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School choice week

In celebration of National School Choice Week, we have been highlighting our ongoing case study series “Teaching Citizenship in Charter Schools.” The series explores how top-performing charter schools have incorporated civic learning in their school curriculum and school culture. We have published three case studies so far: Daniel Lautzenheiser and Andrew P. Kelly’s “Charter Schools as Nation Builders: Democracy Prep and Civic Education”; Joanne Jacobs’ “Counting on Character: National Heritage Academies and Civic Education”; and, most recently, David Feith’s “Making Americans: UNO Charter Schools and Civic Education.”

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Counting on character

Last week, the AEI Program on American Citizenship published a case study by Daniel Lautzenheiser and Andrew P. Kelly that looked at the Democracy Prep Public Schools network in New York City. Today, we’d like to highlight the second study in the series that explores how top-performing charter schools have incorporated civic learning in their school curriculum and culture: “Counting on Character: National Heritage Academies and Civic Education.”

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Recommended Event: Teaching America

Next Monday, January 9, at 9:30 a.m., the Brookings Institution will host a discussion of Teaching America: The Case for Civic Education. As you may remember, we hosted our own discussion of the book in September (re-cap and video highlights here).

At next week’s Brookings’ event, David Feith (editor) will provide opening remarks, John Bridgeland (President and CEO of Civic Enterprises) will deliver the keynote address, and Teaching America contributors Seth Andrew (Democracy Prep), Peter Levine (CIRCLE), and Adm. Michael Ratliff (Jack Miller Center) will discuss their plans to strengthen civic education. Brookings Senior Fellow William Galston will moderate.

For more information about the event–and to register–head over to the event page. We hope to see you there!

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2011 Top books for citizenship

Inspired by our friends at NCoC and the Claremont Institute, the Program thought it would try its hand at a best-of-the-year list for books on citizenship:

  • What So Proudly We Hail: The American Soul in Story, Speech, and Song, edited by Amy A. Kass, Leon R. Kass, and Diana Schaub. An anthology of 74 great American short stories, speeches, and songs. Reacquaint yourself with classics, both old and new, with selections by Jack London, Edward Everett Hale, Frederick Douglass, Ring Lardner, O. Henry, Flannery O’Connor, and many more.
  • Conserving Liberty by Mark Blitz. A spirited defense of American civic virtue. Claremont McKenna College professor Mark Blitz reminds us that individual liberty alone cannot produce happiness. To secure our rights and use them successfully, we need certain virtues: responsibility, toleration, individual excellence, and self-government.
  • Teaching America: The Case for Civic Education. Editor David Feith lines up a cast of civic-minded all-stars–Rick Hess (AEI), Peter Levine (CIRCLE), Bruce Cole (Hudson Institute), and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor–to argue for reinvigorating civic education in our nation’s schools. Look for great things to come as Feith launches the Civic Education Initiative with top charter network Democracy Prep Public Schools.
  • Failing Liberty 101: How We Are Leaving Young Americans Unprepared for Citizenship in a Free Society. Another fine volume on the importance of civic education by noted scholar William Damon. Damon was moved to write Failing Liberty after interviewing American high-school students about what U.S. citizenship meant to them. The results, as described in this book, are deeply troubling, raising “the very real possibility that our democracy will be left in the hands of a citizenry unprepared to govern it and unwilling the make the sacrifices needed to preserve it.”
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Boot camp for citizens

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Peter Berkowitz reviews Teaching America, a collection of essays on the need for civic education, edited by Program friend David Feith:

The case for civic education—what might have been called “civics” in an earlier generation—is straightforward. Just as, say, doctors who receive defective medical training will be handicapped in the performance of their professional tasks, so too citizens whose civic education is lacking will be less than competent as members of an extended political community. Studying the Constitution—not to mention American political ideas and institutions—can help us all to exercise our rights and respect the rights of others and to weigh the merit of contending policies. More generally, as Mr. Feith notes, civic education can nourish a common culture by showing that partisan disputes often reflect conflicting interpretations of a shared commitment to freedom and equality.

Learn more about David’s work, and his new partnership with Democracy Prep Public Schools, at the Teaching America website.

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Teaching citizenship

Jon Schnur, co-founder of New Leaders for New Schools, has an article over at TIME Ideas worth reading: “Can We Teach Kids to be Good Citizens?” Describing new efforts in education that do not “just focus on academic achievement but help students develop character and prepare for active citizenship,” Schnur discusses the need for schools to help students “acquire the knowledge and skills needed to become active participants in American democracy”–citing reports and studies familiar to our readers–and then provides an update on progress in the field:

On the civics front, some teachers now incorporate careful analysis of key foundational American texts not only in history, civics but also in English classrooms. This will become more widespread due to a rigorous, new “common core” of standards adopted by 46 states that include standards on reading, understanding and writing about complex non-fiction texts — including key American documents like the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Emancipation Proclamation. Some schools also integrate active civics in the classroom. Democracy Prep in New York involves all students in voter registration drives while learning about the history and importance of voting.

American education needs a major expansion into all these areas, and these educators are planting initial seeds. Best practices are being documented and shared through efforts like the American Enterprise Institute’s Program on American Citizenship. With No Child Left Behind being dismantled, states and local schools have the important opportunity to reassess priorities beyond testing and academics and ensure that we’re not just focused on creating good students but also good citizens.

In the recently published Teaching America — a new book on civic education with essays from leaders across the political spectrum — O’Connor shared the story of Benjamin Franklin walking out of Independence Hall after the U.S. Constitution had been signed in 1787. A woman asked Franklin if the founders had created a monarchy or a republic. Franklin was said to reply that America would be “a republic, if you can keep it.”

[Emphasis and hyperlinks added.]

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Event Re-cap: Teaching America

Missed today’s event on charter schools and civic education? See the summary below, and visit the event site for full video (and clips!).

At an event hosted today by the AEI Program on American Citizenship and the Civic Education Initiative, a panel of charter school leaders discussed how charter schools can help close the nation’s “civic achievement gap.” Robin Lake (Center on Reinventing Public Education) provided an overview of the state of civic education in the charter sector and outlined some of the diverse approaches charters are taking to civic education. Mike Feinberg (KIPP Schools) discussed his experiences at KIPP, stressing that civic education is important because charter schools are “not just about college, but about how to [provide] good lives” for students. Seth Andrew (Democracy Prep Public Schools) agreed and suggested that the Obama administration change its focus from “college and career” to “college and citizenship” because career is only one component of good citizenship. Juan Rangel (United Neighborhood Organization) highlighted the challenges of providing civic education to Hispanic immigrants and said schools should put greater emphasis on assimilation. Immigrants, he cautioned, “will assimilate, but without our guidance, they will assimilate in ways we don’t want them to.” The panelists also debated the link between civic knowledge and civic skills or dispositions (such as voting or community involvement), discussed ways to best engage disaffected and disadvantaged students and argued for the need for better metrics to measure students’ civic success.

And watch these terrific videos from our charter panelists:

Seth Andrew, Democracy Prep Public Schools
Inauguration Celebration in Harlem
Juan Rangel, United Neighborhood Organization
UNO Charter School Network Remembers 9/11

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Upcoming AEI Event: Teaching America–How Charter Schools Can Help Close the Civic Achievement Gap

Date: Wednesday, September 14, 2011
Time: 9:00 AM — 10:30 AM
Location: AEI, Twelfth Floor
1150 Seventeenth Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036

High-performing charter schools have forged a positive culture for their students defined by college-going and career success. However, this healthy emphasis on personal achievement has come with the inadvertent consequence of neglecting students’ civic education. Have efforts to cultivate “vocational” citizenship skills failed to satisfy the broader obligation of schools to cultivate the next generation of citizens and civic leaders? Join charter school leaders Mike Feinberg (KIPP), Seth Andrew (Democracy Prep), and Juan Rangel (United Neighborhood Organization), along with Robin Lake from the Center on Reinventing Public Education, as they discuss how charter schools understand their civic-education mandate. This event is sponsored by the AEI Program on American Citizenship in conjunction with the Civic Education Initiative and its new volume, Teaching America: The Case for Civic Education (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011).

Register at AEI.

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Raising the Bar for Civic Education

A new book, “Trendsetting Charter Schools,” edited by AEI’s Gary Schmitt and Cheryl Miller, makes the case that at a time of dwindling civic engagement and low voter turnout, teaching good citizenship is even more crucial. Rediscovering the civic mission of schooling is not at odds with the broader education reform movement, they explain. Rather, education reform can, and should, advocate for a more holistic vision, one which includes a robust citizenship curriculum that prepares students to be active participants in their communities and country.

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Challenges for Civic Education

With reduced funding and plummeting exam scores, civic education is in a state of great turmoil. In an interview with Michael Shaughnessy of Education News, Robert Pondiscio outlines the problems facing a disengaged nation and suggests some solutions.

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Why charters?

The third-annual National School Choice Week officially kicked off earlier this week, with over 3,600 events planned across the United States to bring attention to and advocate for more educational options for students and families. (Click here to see what school choice events are happening near you.) As the nation turns its attention to school choice, it’s  a good time to take a look at how charter schools are approaching civic education.

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Teaching Citizenship in Charter Schools

To better understand and advance the efforts of charter schools to teach citizenship, AEI’s Program on American Citizenship and its Education Policy Studies Program are working with a select group of “trendsetter” charter schools that seek to raise the bar for civic education. Building on our 2012 report, we commissioned a series of in-depth case studies exploring how top-performing charter schools have incorporated civic learning in their school curriculum and school culture.

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Rick Hess Straight Up: Making Civics Count

In this morning’s edition of “Rick Hess Straight Up” over at Education Week, AEI scholar Rick Hess hopes that the momentum from the election will focus much needed attention on civic education in our nation. “Students,” Hess notes, “are remarkably unprepared for citizenship.”

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A tale of two schools


Writing recently for Education Week, AEI’s Daniel Lautzenheiser expanded on the “new and potentially transformative way of thinking about schooling” that charter schools provide.

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