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Restoring Civic Attachment In Our Young People

America’s public schools were founded in order to create good citizens who could sustain a new and fragile republic. As Thomas Jefferson famously opined, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” Thus, for nearly two centuries, schools have made civic education a priority in order to ensure the continued stability of our democratic republic and to provide an ever-more-diverse citizenry with a solid appreciation of the rights, opportunities and responsibilities that come with American citizenship.

Today, however, too many of our schools are failing in that mission. To understand the sources of this decline, the Program commissioned a groundbreaking, new survey of the teachers most directly charged with educating and shaping America’s new citizens–high school teachers of history and social studies.

Our survey work provided a clear policy directive: If we are to get better citizens, we need better civic education, which gives a central role to America’s history, political institutions, and ideals and is based on effective classroom practice.

Being a Part of a People: Ridgeview Classical Schools

Being a Part of a People: Ridgeview Charter Schools and Civic Education
By William Gonch
(February 25, 2014)

Early on a crisp Thursday morning at Colorado’s Ridgeview Classical Schools, eighth-graders in Mr. Binder’s American Literature class are presenting on Benjamin Franklin. The students have read the first and second parts of Franklin’s Autobiography, and today they are speaking about Franklin’s “table of virtues,” the famous passage in which he selects 13 virtues he hopes to develop by tracking his progress, each day, in practicing them.

Each student explicates particular aspects of Franklin’s text; all are expected to demonstrate mastery of the content. But the main emphasis of each presentation is what the students call their “virtue project.” Each student has chosen three virtues: two from Franklin’s list and one of his or her choosing. They have identified concrete actions that indicate whether they are succeeding or failing at pursuing their chosen virtues and have spent the past week tracking their actions. Each presentation describes the student’s experience: students explain why they chose their virtues, how they understand them, and how their understanding differs from Franklin’s. Then they report on their success or failure in pursuit of their virtues and answer questions from the class.

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AEI Report: Creating Capital Citizens: Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy and Civic Education

Creating Capital Citizens: César Chávez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy and Civic Education
By Richard Lee Colvin
(April 10, 2013)

Chukwuma Isebor, an 18-year-old high school student whose father emigrated to the United States from Nigeria for college, says that prior to his senior year he was cynical and distrustful “of the government and the way it treated lower-income citizens and minorities.” Yet, there he was in December, arguing with two classmates before a panel of three judges that the patriotic spirit of the nation’s founders could be revived and the quality of American democracy improved if citizens participated more actively.

Chukwuma, Joseline Barajas, and Chyna Winchester are seniors at the César Chávez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy campus on 12th Street Southeast in Washington, DC, 11 blocks east of the Capitol. They offered up their thoughts on citizenship and democracy as they participated in the annual “We the People” competition at their school. The nationwide competition, sponsored by the Center for Civic Education, tests students’ knowledge of the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights in a congressional hearing-style format. Teams research an opening statement that responds to questions on one of the competition’s six themes and then answer queries from a panel of judges. The goal of the competition is to promote knowledge and appreciation of the Constitution as the foundation of democracy in the United States.

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AEI Report: In Service of Citizenship: YES Prep Public Schools and Civic Education

In Service of Citizenship: YES Prep Public Schools and Civic Education
By Robert Maranto
(April 3, 2013)

The “YES” in the name of YES Prep Public Schools stands for Youth Engaged in Service. From its start as a program at Rusk Elementary School in the Houston Independent School District (HISD) in 1995 to its opening as a single independent charter school in 1998 to its current network of 10 grade 6–12 campuses with some 600 teachers serving 6,400 students, YES Prep has emphasized citizenship through service to the community.

YES Prep is often compared to another “no-excuses” network of charter schools: the much touted Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP). Like KIPP, YES Prep began in the 1990s in Houston before chartering with the support of then-HISD Superintendent Rod Paige. Both networks were founded by and are still largely staffed by Teach for America (TFA) corps members. (In a survey of YES Prep social studies teachers I conducted, 61 percent reported being trained by an alternative program such as TFA, compared to 17 percent of traditional public school social studies teachers. Both charter networks are highly successful academically; YES Prep boasts a 100 percent college placement rate and high college completion rates for low-income students. Seventy-two percent of YES Prep alumni have completed college or are making progress toward that goal, compared to around 10 percent of disadvantaged students generally.  Like KIPP, YES Prep serves a predominantly minority student population (86 percent Hispanic), 78 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged.

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AEI Report: Making Americans: UNO Charter Schools and Civic Education

Making Americans: UNO Charter Schools and Civic Education
By David Feith
(January 29, 2013)

On a mid-September weekend in 2011, the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times ran two starkly contrasting stories. The front page of the Tribune reported on some 1,200 Chicago public-school students commemorating the 10th anniversary of 9/11 by organizing public memorials and honoring local police and firefighters. The Sun-Times, meanwhile, brought word of activists in Massachusetts pushing to ban the Pledge of Allegiance from public-school classrooms, lest students suffer undue thought control.

This juxtaposition is invoked by Juan Rangel, CEO of the UNO Charter School Network, with a purposeful mix of pride and exasperation. Pride, because UNO’s students—almost all children of immigrants from Mexico or elsewhere in Latin America—were those who made page one for commemorating 9/11. And exasperation because the worldview manifested by the Massachusetts campaign represents so much of what UNO tries to fight.

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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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AEI Report: Counting on Character: National Heritage Academies and Civic Education

Counting on Character: National Heritage Academies and Civic Education
By Joanne Jacobs
(January 23, 2013)

Like other charter schools, National Heritage Academies promises parents to teach a rigorous curriculum that will prepare their children for success in college. It also promises a moral education imbued with traditional values such as love of country and family. Good character is not just a private asset, NHA leaders believe. It leads to good citizenship.

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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.

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Making Civics Count

Making Civics Count: Citizenship Education for a New Generation
Edited by David E. Campbell, Meira Levinson, and Frederick M. Hess
Harvard Education Press, 2012

“By nearly every measure, Americans are less engaged in their communities and political activity than generations past.” So write the editors of this volume, who survey the current practices and history of citizenship education in the United States.

They argue that the current period of “creative destruction”—when schools are closing and opening in response to reform mandates—is an ideal time to take an in-depth look at how successful strategies and programs promote civic education and good citizenship.

Making Civics Count offers research-based insights into what diverse students and teachers know and do as civic actors, and proposes a blueprint for civic education for a new generation that is both practical and visionary.

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Strengthening the civic mission of charter schools

Strengthening the Civic Mission of Charter Schools
By Robin Lake and Cheryl Miller
(January 6, 2012)

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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?

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Civics 2.0: Citizenship Education for a New Generation

Citizenship education is lacking in public and private schools: 75 percent of high school seniors cannot name a power granted to Congress by the Constitution, fewer than half of eighth graders know the purpose of the Bill of Rights, and less than a quarter of young Americans regularly vote, according to a recent survey released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In addition, civic dialogue is becoming ever more polarized, while public service is openly disdained by many. Previous school reforms have focused on graduation rates and reading and math scores, neglecting education about citizenship and resulting in a lack of basic knowledge about issues at the core of what has made America great.

School reformers are themselves deeply engaged in powerful civic and political action: transforming American educational policy and practice. This presents an opportunity to ensure that America’s schools also focus—as they once did—on forging engaged, empowered citizens. Sponsored by AEI’s Program on American Citizenship, Frederick M. Hess, AEI’s director of education policy studies; Meira Levinson, associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education; and David E. Campbell, associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, have commissioned leading researchers and scholars to explore the issues of citizenship and schooling by looking at domestic and international data, teacher training, and schools and classrooms. This research will illuminate how America’s schools can renew their focus on forging engaged and empowered citizens.

To view the full working papers, click here.

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