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What Schools Should Do to Produce Active, Constructive Citizens

By Joe Nathan — June 25, 2015 3 min read
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Today Joe Nathan responds to Deborah Meier’s blog from earlier this week. Nathan explains what he thinks schools should do to help promote democratic ideals, and to help students become active, constructive citizens.

Deb, before commenting on your last blog, I want to thank you and Education Week for allowing you and I to share, debate, and learn with and from each other for the last six months. I’ve heard from several hundred people who commented and felt the discussions were useful.

As you noted, you and I agree on many things. For me, the single most important agreement is that schools in this country should have as one of their central goals: Helping young people develop skills and attitudes necessary to be active, constructive citizens of a democracy. I’ve written several blogs on this key point, and have been actively trying to promote this idea since becoming a professional educator in 1970.

So for example, public school classes that I taught


  • Helped solve consumer problems that adults referred to us
  • Helped convince the city and state government to clamp down on three companies that were polluting the air in the school’s neighborhood
  • Tried to help start a union of local newspaper carriers

In these and many other cases, the idea was to help young people develop skills needed to read carefully, ask important questions, develop a plan for solving problems, try different strategies, evaluate their impact and learn that in many cases they could have a positive impact. These and many other classes were designed to help young people develop the attitude that it is important to try to help improve the world.

I’m heartened by the many resources available to help students do this. Among my favorites are “What Kids Can Do,” the National Youth Leadership Council, and the book, Kids Guide to Social Action, by former Salt Lake City Teacher Barbara Lewis.

Just this week I wrote a column praising John Nason, president of Carleton College, where I attended. In the turbulent years of 1966-1970, he stressed respect for student views, willingness to listen to and work with students, and a belief that by working together, we could make a difference.

This is far more than a course in civics.

Turning to the list that you provided earlier this week, I strongly agree with each of the following:


  • On matters of finances, hiring/firing of staff, curriculum, and assessment, there be freedom and transparency.
  • Teachers should have an unhampered right to join a Union of their choice and have a system of due process rights.
  • Each school community should develop a system for external review.
  • Each school community should be able to adopt or develop its own forms of assessment.
  • Sufficient time should be allotted to school staff of at least x hours month for professional concerns, x full hours a year for meeting with families; and that families should by law have x paid days off to visit and meet with school personnel. On this point, I think that faculty in the school should have the power to create a schedule permitting what you’ve suggested above. And I like your idea of a law allowing families to take time off from work to visit their youngsters’ school(s).

I also agree that educators, parents and in secondary schools, students should have opportunities to help guide the schools philosophy, budget, curriculum and faculty. Details will vary, but I strongly agree that there should be such opportunities.

As you know, I also believe that a central principle of public education is that families should have options among various forms of public schools, including district and chartered, as well as opportunities to take courses on college campuses and via the internet.

Where do we go from here, Deb? We’ve discussed trying to find others who agree, and sharing these thoughts with others. I hope that people who find they agree with all, or many of the positive principles you and I have shared will contact you or me (joe@centerforschoolchange.org)

Deb, you and I joined together before, in a successful challenge to the NCAA. We put together a broad, liberal/conservative coalition that resulted in the NCAA changing policies.

I think we can and should, join together again, to help more students succeed, and help produce more young people who will be active, constructive citizens in this democracy.

Thanks again for you and Education Week for this opportunity.

Joe Nathan has been an urban public school teacher, administrator, PTA president, researcher, and advocate. He directs the St. Paul, Minn.-based Center for School Change, which works at the school, community, and policy levels to help improve public schools

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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