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Social Studies Opinion

Preparing for Democracy at Democracy Prep

By Rick Hess — January 24, 2013 2 min read
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Amidst our “achievement-gap” drenched discourse, it’s easy to slight other educational priorities--like, say, the obligation of schools to teach, prepare, and equip students to be good and responsible citizens. As I noted in The Same Thing Over and Over, since our nation’s founding, schools have been asked to inculcate good citizenship with at least as much urgency as they’ve been asked to promote literacy and numeracy. Indeed, founder Benjamin Rush argued that the primary role of schooling was to make children into “republican machines.”

Over time, our views have shifted. Today, education is discussed mostly as a way to make students “college and career” ready. As I’ve written before, “When citizenship is spoken of today, it is more and more in a ‘transactional’ sense--with citizenship understood as the basket of skills and attitudes (how to shake hands, speak properly, and be punctual) that will help students attend prestigious colleges and obtain desirable jobs.” The problem? I lamented, “As history teaches us only too well, democracy is not self-perpetuating. If we believe good citizenship matters--if it is not just a means to help students graduate and get good jobs--then we need to actually value it.”

Happily, my colleagues at the AEI Program on American Citizenship (with a bit of input from yours truly) have opted to tackle these issues. The team has commissioned a promising series of case studies profiling top-performing charters that make citizenship and civics a major component of their official mission. They’ve just published an intriguing piece titled “Charter schools as nation builders” by my colleagues Daniel Lautzenheiser and Andrew Kelly, looking at Harlem’s Democracy Prep charter network and sketching out its unique approach to civic education. Enrolling more than 1,500 students at 6 campuses in grades K-12, Democracy Prep encompasses some of New York City’s best-performing schools.

But the cool thing is that, unlike many “no excuses” schools, Democracy Prep is completely unwilling to settle for academic success alone. Lautzenheiser and Kelly report that Democracy Prep places a particular emphasis on “operational” citizenship. This entails real-life lessons on how kids can be active citizens in the real world. The school’s activities include conducting “lobby days” when kids work the state capital in Albany, “Get Out The Vote” campaigns in which kids encourage local adults to vote, and grade-level town halls that are held each week.

They argue that charter schools are a terrific test bed for unapologetic, muscular citizenship education. At Democracy Prep, citizenship infuses every aspect of the school and enjoys the same import as academic instruction. Founder Seth Andrew says, “Some people argue that civic education is a luxury in the era of accountability. They’re dead wrong. Our Regents and SAT scores prove that it’s just the opposite: the more we focus on civic dispositions, skills, and knowledge, the better our scholars perform in English and math. It’s not a zero-sum proposition. I think Democracy Prep can prove that preparing kids for citizenship is something close to ‘best practice’ in education.”

Anyway, it’s an easy read and well worth checking out.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.