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Public Charter Schools and Civics Education

Public Charter Schools and Civics Education

March 11, 2013

With the focus on mathematics and reading in the NCLB era of accountability, it may seem like other subject areas are overlooked. There’s particular concern about lack of attention to social studies, including civics, government, geography, economics, and history, and this assumption is not entirely wrong. Nationwide, one third or more of fourth and eighth graders were proficient in math and reading on the most recent NAEP, while only 27 percent of fourth graders and 22 percent of eighth graders were proficient in civics. And the Common Core State Standards may not improve the situation, since there are standards and skills for Language Arts literacy in history and social studies, but the standards do not apply to the social studies subject areas themselves. As one reporter put it, “Across the spectrum of corporate leaders, colleges, and education advocacy groups—those that have either built the accountability bandwagon, jumped aboard it, or criticized its dominance—the need to educate young people to become active participants in the nation’s political life is seldom mentioned.”
Over the last couple of years, a series of reports have focused attention on the teaching of civics education in public charter schools. The reports raise interesting questions about whether charter schools are doing anything different than traditional public schools, and whether charter schools can be laboratories of innovation for incorporating civics education back into schools. Two organizations have spearheaded the research on civics in charter schools: the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Center on Education Policy (CEP). Despite ideological differences between the two organizations, there is commonality in the belief that schools should teach civics in order to prepare students to be productive citizens:
AEI: “A resurgence in civics could stem—and perhaps even reverse… the polarization of U.S. politics and thus the paralysis of the government… If subpar academics in U.S. schools can cause economic problems, then couldn’t subpar civics education cause political problems?”
CEP: “It is often said that well-informed citizens are at the cornerstone of a strong democracy. Without even a basic knowledge of government, history and a citizen’s role in promoting and defending a robust democracy, individuals are hamstrung in understanding their own rights and the rights of others.”
So what did the studies find? In a January 2012 report, Strengthening the Civic Mission of Charter Schools, Robin Lake of the Center on Reinventing Public Education and AEI’s Cheryl Miller highlight the following:
There is not a common definition of civics education among public charter school leaders sampled; nor is there a common belief about why civics education and preparedness is important, the skills that need to be taught, or the teaching methods that work best. Charter leaders generally dislike traditional civics education resources, such as textbooks and curricula, and prefer to use civic activism to make civics education relevant to students.
The authors provide recommendations for charter school funders, authorizers, and advocacy groups that focus on ways that these groups can help charter schools improve civics education.
AEI followed-up the 2012 report with three case studies from public charter school networks that keep civics education at the heart of their educational practices:

Democracy Prep: The network’s motto is, “Work hard. Go to college. Change the world!” The network places civics education at the core of its mission by teaching students about the details of civics knowledge, as well as action-oriented civics skills.

National Heritage Academies: In National Heritage Academies, civics education is interpreted as moral and character education with the premise that good character leads to good citizens.

UNO Charter School Network: The UNO network of charter schools uses civics education to help with the assimilation and Americanization of the schools’ largely Latino and immigrant student population. UNO school leaders believe that the goal of the network is in creating “not just educated and engaged citizens, but educated and engaged American citizens.”
The recent CEP study, Civic Education and Charter Schools: Current Knowledge and Future Research Issues, examines the NAEP civics assessment to compare charter schools and traditional public schools on civics achievement and school instructional practices.
Overall, the study finds little difference in civics performance between students who attend charter schools and students who attend traditional public schools. There were a couple of differences, like 8th grade Hispanic students and male 12th graders in charter schools outperforming students in traditional public schools.
There were some differences in how civics education was taught in the two types of schools. A higher percentage of eighth grade charter students reported taking part in role play, mock trials, and dramas. Eighth graders and 12th graders in charter schools reported answering more questions daily about social studies than students in traditional public schools.
The study highlights the need for better data on student performance and the teaching of civics education.
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