Charter Schooling & Citizenship

I’m an advocate for charter schooling. Regular readers of my blog know that this is not because I’m convinced they’re the answer to the “achievement gap” or to driving up math and reading scores, but because chartering offers an opportunity to rethink how we go about teaching, learning, and schooling. In that context, I’ve long been concerned that our rethinking is almost entirely focused on reading and math scores and graduation rates and the result can yield a reflexive, frail conception of schooling. If we’re going to reinvent schools, I’d like us to do so in a manner that respects the broad purpose of the schoolhouse, which means paying due attention to the arts, to a rich curriculum, and, perhaps most important of all, to helping students develop as moral individuals and citizens.

As part of our ongoing effort to explore and promote citizenship education at AEI (see, for instance, here), we had the pleasure of convening an array of terrific charter school leaders and teachers in San Francisco yesterday. The topic: how they approach citizenship education and gauge their performance, and what steps might help to encourage or support such efforts.

A bunch of intriguing issues arose, and charter impresario Robin Lake will be exploring them in a white paper that we’ll be issuing this fall. For the moment, five particular points stuck with me:

First, I was pleasantly surprised by the admirable humility of the terrific charter school leaders and educators. I’d feared that this collection of educators would be dismissive of concerns as to whether they were doing all they could to develop moral character, civic knowledge, and engaged citizens. I need not have worried. In a conversation that included representatives from KIPP, YES Prep, Cesar Chavez High School for Public Policy, UNO, High Tech High, Basis, National Heritage Academies, Basis, and Democracy Prep, among others, participants talked bluntly about the need to do far better when it comes to developing character, cultivating citizenship, and monitoring their performance in these areas.

Second, the question arose as to whether parents actually care about whether schools are cultivating good citizens. One educator asked, “Do parents choose [us] because of the civic mission?” He answered his own question, “No.” That was the consensus. Another school founder observed that, generally speaking, “Our parents don’t give a [hoot] about democracy walking in the door. They come because of our academic performance, and because their kids will be safe.” That said, it also seemed true that schools which deliver academically earn the parental trust that positions them to move as aggressively as they wish on issues of citizenship and character; the question is what they do with that.

Third, charters are particularly well-suited to tackle these questions because they don’t have to wrestle with all the parental griping and constituency politics that hamper district efforts to establish strong codes of conduct, to encourage political participation, or to promote character development. Charter schools can make their civic vision an explicit part of their appeal, so that supportive families can seek them out, and others can go elsewhere.

Fourth, questions of citizenship are peripheral when it comes to charter authorizing. National Association of Charter School Authorizers president Greg Richmond pointed out that there are real, substantive disagreements over how to understand the civic mission of schooling. And, “when you can’t agree what to measure, it’s hard to focus on metrics”–so authorizers focus on less controversial measures, like reading and math scores. He also pointed out that public school officials long excused mediocrity by saying, “Maybe our kids can’t read or write, but we’re preparing them to be good citizens.” This abuse, he noted, resulted in “toxic backlash.” Today, Richmond couldn’t think of any authorizer that meaningfully incorporates citizenship criteria into its decisions. Seth Andrews of Democracy Prep raised the question of how educators might start to transform citizenship from a “soft skill” into a “hard skill.”

Fifth, the question arose as to whether schools serving disadvantaged students can or should actively seek to encourage students to feel an affection or attachment to the nation. Green Dot founder Steve Barr made the case that schools can’t simply expect to teach at-risk students to be patriotic, because these kids haven’t seen much from their nation that would incline them to love it–and that these kids need to build trust in the U.S. system before they can be expected to feel attached to it. He said, “When you’re around [intense] poverty and injustice, citizenship has a different meaning. Just shaking hands and getting along is a big deal. If you want more, it requires building trust.”

Finally, for what it’s worth, a few terrific lines really struck me during the day:

“One complication with encouraging student activism is it can burn them out. We had a kid who went to two anti-war protests and, when the war didn’t stop, he lost interest.”

“The best way to imagine what I want our grads to be like is, if I’m a criminal defendant, I want kids who graduate who I’d want to be on my jury.”

“Right now, [citizenship] just isn’t a priority. I’ve got five jobs, and that’s my fifth. I’m a history teacher, then an ELL teacher, than a dance teacher, then a 9th grade chair, and then the service learning coordinator. This means service learning is what I do Sunday night.”

“We don’t operate as a democracy [in the school], we’re preparing students to be citizens in a democracy.”

– Fredrick Hess

This post also appears on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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