Can We Teach Kids to Be Good Citizens?

Too often our nation's schools build vocabulary but not character. A new movement promises to change that

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Over dinner this weekend, I listened to public school parents echo an increasingly common refrain. An active mom was disappointed that her child’s school hadn’t been more responsive to her efforts encouraging the teaching of good character. Her husband noted that the school occasionally takes a week to focus on themes like “respect others” — but added that a one-week project feels good without leaving a lasting impact.

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Such concerns are fueling a new push in education to not just focus on academic achievement but help students develop character and prepare for active citizenship. Turning this effort into a movement was the primary goal of a recent gathering I joined — convened by former Clinton White House official and author Eric Liu — of educators, scholars and non-profit executives. The nascent movement’s unlikely mix of leaders and advocates include former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’ Connor, parents from all socio-economic backgrounds and academic researchers.

Done well, this movement will strengthen and balance important academic achievement initiatives by empowering students with additional qualities including working hard, sticking with it, respecting others and finding solutions during conflict. The movement has two big ideas — grounded in important new research and old-fashioned American values. The first is that public schools and parents should work together to develop specific character strengths that maximize his or her future success. The second is that schools should help students acquire the knowledge and skills needed to become active participants in American democracy. At their best, these two big ideas get blended — defining and developing character includes community-oriented strengths like teamwork.

New research shows the importance of character strengths and civic skills. In an article in Psychological Science, Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman report that self-discipline has twice the impact of I.Q. on such outcomes as grade point average, student attendance and admission into selective schools. In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Duckworth reported that “grit” — defined as perseverance and passion for long-term goals — also has major impact on these types of outcomes.

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A new report co-chaired by Sandra Day O’ Connor, who recently created iCivics, and former Congressman Lee Hamilton argued that we’ll need to significantly increase civic literacy to protect U.S. democracy and prepare students for citizenship. This spring, the National Center for Educational Statistics released data showing that more than two-thirds of 8th grade students didn’t know the historical importance of the Declaration of Independence. Barely one-third of Americans could name all three branches of the U.S. government according to a survey published recently by the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

Meanwhile, some schools are creating promising strategies to close these gaps — and they understand evidence showing the mixed impact of well-intentioned programs. They are integrating approaches across a school instead of teaching them in a single class or program, making selected set of character strengths such as respecting others and working hard even after failure “part of the air we breathe” every day. At E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., that happens through weekly school-wide assemblies, training teachers to weave these into daily lesson plans and codes of conduct, helping parents understand and inviting them to use the same language, regularly celebrating specific examples of student behavior exemplifying character strengths and encouraging public apologies for the impact on the individual and community when students transgress.

Adults in these schools model character strengths they are asking kids to demonstrate — and talk openly with kids about successful and unsuccessful efforts to do so. As James Baldwin has said, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders but have never failed to imitate them.” Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) schools are pioneering character report cards to encourage student progress. Instead of replicating vague character education programs, KIPP tracks and provides regular feedback on 24 specific behaviors manifesting these character strengths.

Meanwhile, 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.

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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.”

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