Public Schools Can Revive Citizenship — If We Let Them

by Ron Berger

We seem to have forgotten as a nation why we created public schools. Nobody is confused about why we have public fire departments or libraries: We all understand their mission and importance for the public good. But the mission and importance of public schools? Not so much.

If we consider how public schools are assessed, or look at the schools celebrated in media, one would assume public schools have a single narrow mission: to prepare students to perform well on standardized tests in two subjects, math and literacy. Notice I did not say to be great readers, writers, or users of math in the world. That’s a different thing. Most of us, for example, have forgotten almost all the math we learned for high school tests.

Of course, basic skills in math and literacy are vital. And some testing of students is essential. But public schools were established for a much more profound reason: in the words of Thomas Jefferson, “to instruct the mass of our citizens in these, their rights, interests and duties, as men and citizens.” Our democracy cannot sustain and thrive unless we prepare children to be productive workers, keeping the economy strong, and contributing citizens, working for a free and just society. Public schools are our national engine to produce informed and capable citizens to guide our democracy.

How are we doing in that department? Not so well. In a recent Annenberg Public Policy survey, three in four Americans could not name the three branches of government. In the last U.S. presidential election, more than 100 million voters did not cast a vote — a greater number than the final vote tally for either major candidate. We are living in a dangerous time for democracy.

Why do our students grow up to know so little about our democracy? Why do they grow up to care so little about contributing to our democracy? This is not a mystery. We have created this situation ourselves by narrowing our national vision of the purpose of schools. We also have the power to change this.

Part of the problem lies in academic content. The pressure of high stakes testing in math and literacy has pushed schools to curtail or even eliminate subjects such as science, history, geography, arts, fitness, and specifically, civics. The more challenged the school (typically this means the higher the poverty level), the more likely that these subjects have been cut back or cut out.

But restoring academic content about citizenship and government will not in itself solve the problem. To be honest, many students dozed through high school civics classes, and most of the Americans who now cannot name the three branches of government likely did learn that content for a test. For the content to stick beyond a test, it has to be learned with a purpose: as a part of meaningful work.

If we want students to become active, respectful citizens, we must engage them and support them to practice good citizenship while in school. We must not merely prepare them to be active citizens after they graduate from high school or college, but to act as positive citizens right now, in 2nd grade or in 10th grade. They need to learn to be positive citizens of their classroom and school community as well as the community beyond the school walls.

Citizenship education means inspiring students to understand and work for the common good — to look out for others and treat them fairly and to show respect, compassion, and integrity. As The National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development makes clear in its recent research report, social and citizenship skills must be a central focus in our schools.

If students were supported to be good citizens in their classrooms, schools would be different. There would be norms for behavior and scholarship modeled by students. Students would be in charge of significant aspects of learning: taking care of the physical classroom and its resources; collaborating effectively in small groups; supporting each other’s learning through peer critique; managing projects independently as individuals and groups; making significant decisions — with teacher guidance — about the nature of their learning and their work. Time would be spent during class, whether civics class or algebra class, discussing and improving student citizenship: focusing on responsibility and leadership in class, and on applying their learning to contribute to the world. Students would have leadership roles in the school and community.

For 25 years I have worked with a non-profit organization, EL Education, that helps public schools to cultivate citizenship in students by joining academic learning to civic contribution. Here’s one example of what that actually looks like. Middle school students at Polaris Academy in Chicago, Illinois recently led a campaign to address gun violence in their community. They studied the Constitution and Second Amendment; worked with legislators, police, clergy, activists, and gang members; created PSAs shown on television; published a book honoring local “Peacekeepers”; and led a citywide “Day of Peace” that stopped violence in much of the city for the first time in modern history.

If we hope to cultivate great citizens for tomorrow, America’s schools need to follow Polaris Academy’s lead and begin today.


 Ron Berger is the Chief Academic Officer at EL Education.



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