Character & Citizenship

image of teacher and children sitting in circle in classroom
Overview

Educating for Character & Citizenship

The intensive focus in public schools on boosting achievement in core subjects has sparked concerns that the U.S. education system is neglecting an important responsibility: to help foster in children strong character and prepare them for active citizenship in a democratic society.

The intensive focus in public schools on boosting achievement in core subjects has sparked concerns that the U.S. education system is neglecting an important responsibility: to help foster in children strong character and prepare them for active citizenship in a democratic society.

Yet some schools take an active role in educating the “whole child.” Arguably the biggest development in recent years has been a rising focus on social and emotional learning, to promote skills and attitudes such as grit, self-control, and a growth mindset. Another key domain is the formation of moral character — traits such as honesty, compassion, and responsibility.

And then come the civic virtues and dispositions that contribute to the common good. Some school initiatives aim to explicitly help young people learn — and experience — what it means to be active citizens in their community and beyond. It’s not simply a matter of voting, but taking other actions, such as creating more green spaces in low-income communities or volunteering at a local food bank.

Critical Questions

When character education comes up, especially in a public school context, the topic raises many critical questions. What is the appropriate role for public schools in character formation? Whose values should they impart, especially in an increasingly diverse society? Is an emphasis on moral character or social and emotional learning (sometimes called performance character) an ill-conceived distraction from core academics? Is there really time for it?

Developing character through public schooling has a long and deep history in the United States, as Brookings Institution fellow Jon Valant and others note.

“Character education hasn’t received much attention during an era of education policy and rhetoric that almost exclusively targeted proficiency in core academic subjects,” Valant  writes for The Brookings Institution. “The narrow focus of recent decades, however, is historically anomalous, and the country has regularly looked to schools to address threats it perceives to its social, economic, and political well-being.”

Competing Terminology

One issue that emerges when writing about educating for character is the terminology. A lot of different phrases are invoked, including character education, social and emotional learning, non-cognitive skills, moral education, etc. NPR education reporter Anya Kamenetz wrote a blog post about this very issue: Social and Emotional Skills: Everybody Loves Them But Still Can’t Define Them.

The Jubilee Center for Character & Virtues at the University of Birmingham in England recently published “A Framework for Character Education in Schools.” It offers a helpful primer and divides character into four categories:

  • Moral virtues (such as compassion, courage, gratitude, and humility);
  • Performance virtues (such as confidence, determination, motivation, and resilience);
  • Civic virtues (such as civility, community awareness, and volunteering); and
  • Intellectual virtues (such as critical thinking, curiosity, and reflection).

To be meaningful, character education has to be part of the fabric of school life — not just an add-on or a once-a-week lesson, suggested several experts at an EWA seminar. And educators must practice what they preach.

Building character, community, and citizenship is an integral part of the Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, D.C.,  said Jessica Wodatch, the school’s executive director.  She cited as examples regular morning meetings for all students, the emphasis on “scholarly habits” such as working hard, being a team player, and caring for the community, and embedding character and citizenship dimensions into 10-week academic exploration projects students tackle, called expeditions.

Social and Emotional Learning

The push for social and emotional learning has gained widespread attention, fueled by a growing body of research that suggests a focus on this domain can improve academic achievement and success in life. As Education Week reports, the Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development has convened working groups and is visiting schools around the country that embrace social and emotional learning.

In early 2018, the commission issued preliminary findings. One was that “learning is social and emotional,” that social, emotional, cognitive, linguistic, and academic development are “deeply intertwined in the brain and in behavior,” and that “all are central to learning and success.” The report also concludes that many instructional strategies can support social and emotional development, but that they “must be implemented intentionally.” A third is that successful SEL should be reflected in all aspects of schooling, from classroom instruction to a school’s culture and climate and even family engagement.

Looking ahead, Education Week’s Evie Blad notes, “A common concern about social-emotional learning is that it will be another short-lived trend in a line of educational movements that schools try and abandon without giving it a chance to take effect in a meaningful way.”

The commission itself highlighted some of the challenges ahead, including determining the best ways to build the capacity of educators to support SEL, and figuring out how policy can encourage the integration of SEL into schools “without creating a mandate for compliance or dampening local efforts and enthusiasm.”

Another key question is how to best to measure social and emotional learning. Indeed, early speculation that some states would build SEL into their revamped accountability systems under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act have not come to pass. So far, no state is using such measures.

In the meantime, many experts and educators see a pressing need to engage more deliberately with questions of character and citizenship.

Ron Berger, the chief academic officer at EL Education and a longtime advocate of educating for character, argues that character can’t be ignored in schools. “Many districts or schools will say to me, ‘We don’t have time to teach character.’ My answer is always this: ‘You don’t have a choice to teach character: You’re doing it all day long.’ ”

For more information, check out our resources page on character and citizenship.

Finalist

Coaches’ Use of Homeless Athletes Draws Scrutiny
Investigative Reporting: General News Outlets, Print and Online (Large Staff)

2017 EWA Award Finalist Banner image Screen shot (Seattle Times)

About the Entry

A tip from a source led Claudia Rowe of The Seattle Times to discover that some high school sports officials appeared to be trying to improve their teams by gaming protections for homeless students — getting star athletes to declare themselves homeless so that they’d be able to transfer and play immediately.

Member Stories

April 12 – April 19
Here's what we're reading by EWA members this week.

In Michigan, a school’s efforts to help hungry students is broadening its reach, Lori Higgins reports for The Detroit Free Press.

 

Kathy A. Bolten details for the Des Moines Register how a college student is using social media to criticize campus administrators for their handling of sexual assault allegations. 

 

The Palm Beach Post’s Andrew Marra digs into questionable expenditures by a charter school. 

 

Member Stories

April 6 – April 11
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Two students in a Holocaust history class were killed during the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. Now Holocaust Remembrance Day has a deeply personal meaning for their teacher and classmates, Mark Keierleber reports for The 74.

 

Justin Murphy details for the Democrat & Chronicle how the recent death of a teen with autism — who wandered away from school unnoticed — symbolizes a broader special education crisis.

 

Blog: The Educated Reporter

The Ins and Outs of ‘Restorative Justice’ in Schools
What is it? Does it work as an alternative to traditional student discipline?

When students misbehave at school, traditional approaches to discipline say you should punish them to deter future offenses.

But a growing movement toward “restorative” approaches to discipline focuses more on repairing the damage rather than suspending or expelling students.

Though details vary from school to school, so-called “restorative justice” programs instead encourage students to reflect on their transgressions and their root causes, talk about them – usually with the victims of the behavior – and try to make amends.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Covering Teens: Lessons from the “Raising Kings” Journalists

Getting heartfelt, personally revealing comments from teenage boys is difficult enough for parents. So reporters Kavitha Cardoza and Cory Turner had to take a few creative risks to get good audio for their National Public Radio series on an all-boys public high school in Washington D.C. last year.

Member Stories

March 23 – March 29
Here's what we're reading by EWA members this week.

Funds from a settled desegregation case have been supporting Mississippi’s HBCUs, but the money is about to run out, reports Adam Harris for The Chronicle of Higher Education

 

Lily Altavena of The Arizona Republic takes a look beyond the ‘D’ grade of a Mesa community school. 

 

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Educators ‘Cultivate’ Connections to Build Character

Building character is an everyday event, woven into the fabric of how school is done on every level, educators and students told journalists during a conference in New Orleans on educating for character and citizenship.

A key goal is creating a community of trust among students and faculty, said educators at several schools that put character development at the center. During the panel discussion, they used words like “love” and “team” to describe their schools, emphasizing the mutual respect that they work to cultivate between students and teachers.

Latest News

How One District is Spreading Social-Emotional Learning Across All Its Schools

Students in algebra class at Jason Lee Middle School gathered in small groups to teach each other how to work through a complex math problem. Some of them stood. Some sat at desks. And some pedaled away on stationary bicycles.

In the front of each group, one student stood at a white board, circling the part of the problem he or she didn’t understand. The other students asked questions until they could navigate their classmate to the right answer.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Push for Media Literacy Takes on Urgency Amid Rise of ‘Fake News’
Some states act to spark schools' focus on teaching subject

The advent of “fake news” was the worst-best thing to happen to media literacy in schools.

That’s according to Sherri Hope Culver, the director of the Center for Media and Information Literacy at Temple University.

In years past, it was tough work convincing legislators and reporters the importance of paying attention to the issue of teaching children how to analyze and evaluate media, Culver said during a recent Education Writers Association seminar in New Orleans.They’d ask what made the issue timely.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

When It Comes to Character Education, There’s ‘No Off Switch’

It’s an education topic that prompts more questions than answers, and it’s expected to spur debate for years to come.

Character education: What is it? What does it look like? Can it be measured?

Experts in education and journalists gathered in New Orleans last month quickly agreed there are numerous terms, definitions, philosophies and methods to explain character education.

image of student studying New Orleans waterways 2018
Blog: The Educated Reporter

To Teach Civic Engagement, Put Students Into Action, Advocates Say

With their bodies submerged in the shallow bayou and their heads bobbing just above the water, Sunny Dawn Summers and her class of high school students talked through the process of harvesting, shucking, and selling oysters.

Just miles from restaurants in New Orleans’ famed French Quarter, the students pondered the costs of labor, boat maintenance, and shipping that get an oyster from the muddy bayou floor to the dinner plate.

Key Coverage

OPINION: Why Thomas Jefferson Would Be Proud of Florida’s Students

Here’s something to think about when you hear people question whether student protests are appropriate: We seem to have forgotten as a nation why we created public schools.

No one is confused about why we have public fire departments or libraries: We all understand their mission for the public good. But the mission and importance of public schools? Not so much.

photo of students at EWA Character & Citizenship event..
Blog: The Educated Reporter

What You Missed at EWA’s Seminar on Educating for Character & Citizenship

Dozens of journalists gathered in New Orleans this month to explore a dimension of education that often gets short shrift both in schools and in news coverage: developing students’ character and preparing them for active citizenship.

Reporters heard not only from educators, experts, and fellow journalists, but also students from New Orleans and beyond. Issues on tap included the moral education of young people, social and emotional learning, media literacy, and the rapid rise of ”restorative justice” as an alternative to traditional disciplinary practice.

Member Stories

Feb. 16 – Feb. 22
Here's what we're reading by EWA members this week.

School shootings dominated headlines this week, including a Wall Street Journal spread dedicated to decades of victims, shared by Tawnell Hobbs.

 

From the teacher’s POV, Education Week’s Madeline Will examines the fear that accompanies school lockdown drills in the wake of the Florida shooting. 

 

Latest News

Edison Principal Being Replaced After Student Walkout and Public Outcry

Tulsa Public Schools will replace Edison Preparatory School Principal Dixie Speer and transfer her to another school, the district said Tuesday afternoon.

“Based on all of the feedback we have received, Principal Speer and I have determined that a leadership change would be a healthy step at this time,” Superintendent Deborah Gist said in a letter to parents.