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Strengthening the civic mission of charter schools

Monday, January 9th, 2012

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

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WATCH: Seth Andrew of Democracy Prep Public Schools discusses how charter schools can serve as a model for civic education at an AEI event.

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?

In some respects, this lack of attention is hardly a surprise. Over the past couple of decades, the school reform movement has been largely focused on redressing deficiencies in basic skills such as reading and math and boosting graduation rates. At the federal level, civic education has been marginalized. Civics is not among the subjects tested under the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, nor is it part of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top, which offers competitive grants to states that establish performance-based standards for teachers and adopt common “college- and career-ready” standards in reading and math. More recently, the federal government has drastically cut back funding for civic education programs: the Teaching American History grant program, the Presidential and Congressional Academies, and the Center for Civic Education’s “We the People” civics program are all ending or will see their activities significantly reduced. Fewer than half of states test high school students in social studies or government (the traditional “home” for civics).

The current focus on basic academic skills is hardly unreasonable; indeed, given the problems that mark American education today, it is absolutely essential. Yet an otherwise healthy emphasis has also dramatically narrowed our understanding of the purposes of education. By characterizing education primarily as the path to personal and professional advancement, reformers have (albeit unintentionally) redefined education as a private good, divorcing schooling from its historic role of instructing young people for citizenship.

This trend is particularly lamentable in the case of charter schools, given their role as laboratories of innovation—they can be public education’s research and development (R&D) arm for civic education. Because they have greater autonomy and tend to attract innovative educators, charters can experiment with new methods and strategies that, if proven effective, can be adopted by the larger public school system. Charters have a potentially powerful role to play as trendsetters for civic learning and can remind educators and policymakers of the many purposes of the schoolhouse.

Strengthening civic education in charter schools may be all the more important given the student population served by many charters. Just as an achievement gap exists in reading and math, so too does a civic achievement gap. Harvard researcher Meira Levinson notes that “as early as fourth grade and continuing into the eighth and twelfth grades, poor, African-American, and Hispanic students perform significantly worse on the civics test of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) than white, Asian, and middle-class students.” Other studies have found that disadvantaged students have fewer opportunities to take civics courses and engage in civic activities.

Charter schools serve exactly these students. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, charters serve a higher percentage of minority students and students from low-income families than other public schools. Giving these students the knowledge, skills, and habits to participate in civic life would seem to be a key priority, deeply connected to the obviously important vocational and professional goals that charter schools have set for themselves.

Fortunately, a number of charter school leaders are giving serious thought to the question of civic education. Newer entrants to the charter school arena have made citizenship and civic education their organizing theme and mission, including Democracy Prep Public Schools (opened in August 2006), the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) Charter School Network (2004), and the pioneering César Chávez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy (1998). Prominent charter leaders, such as Mike Feinberg at KIPP, are speaking out about charter schools’ civic mission and are working to introduce and enhance citizenship education curricula.

To better understand and advance the efforts of charter schools to teach citizenship, the American Enterprise Institute’s Program on American Citizenship and its Education Policy Studies Program convened a meeting of more than a dozen charter school educators and administrators in May 2011 in San Francisco. In a conversation that included representatives from KIPP, YES Prep, César Chávez, UNO, BASIS Schools, High Tech High, National Heritage Academies, and Democracy Prep, among others, participants spoke frankly about the need to do a better job of helping students develop as moral individuals and citizens.

Over a day’s discussion, the following themes and tensions emerged:

  • Many of the charter school educators we met with do not view civic education as a subject for social studies teachers alone to address. They see civics, broadly defined, as an important schoolwide task and seek ways for the whole school to engage.
  • In their approaches to civic education, charter schools are more different than alike. The leaders we spoke with hold diverse, and sometimes conflicting, views on why civic preparation is important, what skills are most critical, and which teaching methods work best. In many cases, these differences stem from the types of students each school is targeting and what school leaders think will work best for those students.
  • Charter leaders are generally united in some disdain for traditional civics textbooks and curricula. While they believe content has an important place, they generally feel that civic activism is a more effective way to help students, especially those from high-poverty backgrounds, understand how civics relates to their lives.
  • There is no common definition of citizenship among charter school leaders. Some emphasize developing civic skills or cultivating civic dispositions; others, promoting activism and engagement; and still others, fostering attachment or a particular orientation to one’s country. This is due, in part, to the multifaceted character of citizenship. This lack of consensus also reflects the broader (and often, ideological) debate in American society about the meaning of citizenship.
  • The absence of a common definition is both an opportunity and an impediment for charter schools. As schools of choice, charters can make their distinctive civic vision an explicit part of their appeal so that supportive families can seek them out and others can go elsewhere. However, the lack of a common definition poses challenges for establishing common metrics for citizenship education and garnering greater support for citizenship education among charter authorizers, policymakers, and parents.
  • Charter leaders believe the charter sector might be forging its own shackles by not including civic education in accountability metrics and by overemphasizing math and reading on high-stakes tests. At the same time, they have difficulty defining how approaches to civics should be measured.
  • Questions of citizenship are peripheral when it comes to authorizing charter schools by their overseers. Currently, no charter authorizer meaningfully incorporates citizenship criteria into its decisions. This reluctance stems, in part, from a lack of good metrics for citizenship education. More critically, real, substantive disagreements exist over how to understand the civic mission of schooling, leading many authorizers to focus on less controversial standards, such as reading and math scores, to judge schools.
  • Teachers in charter schools say they have trouble finding time, professional development programs, and resources to teach civics effectively to their particular students. Small school size, intensive student remediation needs, underfunding, and lack of access to district staff development workshops are all barriers that they seek to overcome.