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.

Multimedia

A Year of ‘Teachable Moments’: Civic Virtues and Character Education in Action

Following a tumultuous year, how can educators develop inclusive and supportive campus climates? How might a focus on character traits, such as integrity, compassion, justice, and empathy, improve student learning and outcomes?

What approaches are schools taking to nurture these traits through experiential learning and classroom instruction?

Educators and experts addressed these and other questions during a May 4 session at the Education Writers Association’s 2021 National Seminar.

The participants were:

  • Ashley Rogers Berner, Johns Hopkins University
  • Arria Coburn, The Springfield (MA) Renaissance School
  • Andrew Smarick, The Manhattan Institute
  • Emily Richmond, Education Writers Association (Moderator)

A Year of ‘Teachable Moments’: Civic Virtues and Character Education in Action

Latest News

Civics Legislation Caught in Debate Over Race in Education

The lesson today, class, is how to turn bipartisan legislation encouraging teaching of civics into an ideological food fight.

The legislation in question seemed noncontroversial at first, even boring. It would authorize $1 billion a year in grants to pay for more civics education. The goal was to better balance a test-driven K-12 education system that focuses heavily on math and reading with a subject — civics — that has gotten less attention and far less money in recent years.

Civics is critical, backers say, to maintaining a functioning democracy.

Teaching Respect and Tolerance in Tumultuous Times
Blog: The Educated Reporter

Teaching Respect and Tolerance in Tumultuous Times
What to know when reporting on character education

It won’t be easy, but American schools need to do more to instill civic and moral virtues in their students, three experts said at the Education Writers Association’s 2021 National Seminar.

“For millennia, people thought moral character development was part of education, but that seems to have been abandoned in the U.S. in the last 20 years,” said Andy Smarick, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

EWA 74th National Seminar  graphic
Seminar

74th EWA National Seminar
Virtual, May 2-5, 2021

The Education Writers Association’s 74th National Seminar will focus on the theme of “Now What? Reporting on Education Amid Uncertainty.” Four afternoons of conversations, training and presentations will give attendees deeper understanding of these crises, as well as tools, skills and context to help them better serve their communities — and advance their careers. 

To be held May 2-5, 2021, the seminar will feature education newsmakers, including leaders, policy makers, researchers, practitioners and journalists. And it will offer practical data and other skills training. 

Key Coverage

As an Aneurysm and COVID-19 Threatened His Mom’s Life, This 10-year-old Persevered

When Santiago Vazquez discovered the internet went down at his home in Tulare, that didn’t stop him from attending his online class. 

The 10-year-old grabbed his Chromebook and climbed into the car of a family friend, who drove him around town until they found free Wi-Fi. His fifth-grade teacher, Melissa Graham, started her Zoom lesson for that third week of school and saw Vazquez working from the backseat of the car. 

Rethinking How Journalists Write About Young People
Webinar

Rethinking How Journalists Write About Young People

The stories education journalists tell can make a powerful impact in communities: deepening public understanding of critical issues, highlighting inequities, and holding public officials accountable. But sometimes their stories — and even their choice of words and phrases — may have unintended and potentially harmful effects on public attitudes toward young people. Those depictions can amplify stereotypes or distort impressions of youths.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Young Activists Offer Tips, Share Hesitations on Working With Journalists
'Amplify their voices,' and remember this may be their first media experience

When high schoolers Eric Luo and Zoe Monterola saw how inaccessible grocery delivery services were for at-risk populations in their hometown of Santa Clarita, California, they knew something needed to be done.

“Seeing people pay hundreds of dollars just so people can grocery shop for them … these issues affect us. That’s something that we can change,” Zoe said.

Seminar

73rd EWA National Seminar

EWA’s National Seminar is the largest annual gathering of journalists on the education beat. 

This multi-day conference is designed to give participants the skills, understanding, and inspiration to improve their coverage of education at all levels. It also will deliver a lengthy list of story ideas. We will offer numerous sessions on important education issues, as well as on journalism skills.

EWA Radio

When College Students Aren’t College-Ready
Thousands of students struggle at Chicago’s two-year colleges. Is an overhaul of developmental ed. programs enough to help?
(EWA Radio: Episode 231)

In Chicago, thousands of students are earning high school diplomas but showing up at the city’s two-year colleges unprepared for the next step in their academic journeys. In a new project, Kate McGee of WBEZ looked at efforts to buck that trend, including an innovative program developed not by outside experts but the system’s own faculty.  Along the way, she explored a number of questions: Do students benefit more from remedial classes that re-teach them material they were supposed to master in high school, or from being placed directly into college classes with additional support like tutoring

EWA Radio

Are Schools Adequately Preparing Students to Vote?
As political controversies trickle into classrooms, civics teachers connect curriculum to current events
(EWA Radio: Episode 207)

With the youth vote expected to be an important factor in the 2020 election cycle, civics teachers are increasingly using current events to help students understand the democratic system — and to be engaged and informed citizens. Reporter Stephen Sawchuk of Education Week shares insights from his news organization’s “Citizen Z” project, focused on the state of civics education in the U.S., including how it shapes individuals’ perspectives and community engagement beyond voting.

Education Reporting That Counts: Covering the 2020 Census
Webinar

Education Reporting That Counts: Covering the 2020 Census

The federal head count of the nation’s residents is underway, and federal officials are turning to public schools to help spread the word. The outcome of the census could have significant implications for public schools and education funding: It helps determine federal funding for programs and services, as well as congressional districting.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Super Tuesday: The Education Angles
What's at stake for public education in the 2020 election?

A flurry of education-related conversation surfaced at the most recent Democratic presidential debate on Feb. 25, as candidates exchanged jabs and defended their positions on charter schools, student loan debt, and setting up young people for meaningful careers.

The 10th debate came at a pivotal moment, just days before voters in 14 states will cast their ballots on Super Tuesday (March 3). With education taking a back seat in prior debates, the rapid-fire discussion caught the attention of education journalists and pundits.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Educating the ‘Whole Child’ Is Complex. Will Schools Get It Right?
Recipe blends academics with SEL, character development

The idea that education isn’t simply about academics is nothing new. But efforts are mounting to promote a better balance in schools, to more explicitly address students’ social and emotional learning (SEL), build strong character, and foster civic responsibility. 

The terminology varies, but the broad concept is sometimes referred to as “educating the whole child.” What’s it all about? What’s driving the increased interest and attention? And are public schools today really equipped to deliver this expansive vision of education? 

Blog: The Educated Reporter

The State of Civics Education in 2019

We’ve all seen the startling statistics.

Only a quarter of Americans can name the three branches of government. Only a quarter of high school seniors are “proficient” in civics, based on recent national assessment results.

EWA Radio

With Civics, Do Schools Practice What They Teach?
As political tensions trickle into schools, how are schools preparing students to be engaged citizens and informed voters?
(EWA Radio: Episode 207)

Are public schools meeting their longstanding obligation to prepare students for the responsibilities of civic life? For the past year, a team of reporters and editors at Education Week has focused on the state of civics education in the U.S., from the instructional materials used by schools to examples where students are “living” civic engagement rather than just studying it. Reporter Stephen Sawchuk discusses the “Citizen Z” project, and how journalists can use it as a blueprint to inform their own work on this critical subject.

Seminar

72nd EWA National Seminar
Baltimore • May 6-8, 2019

EWA’s National Seminar is the largest annual gathering of journalists on the education beat. This year’s event in Baltimore, hosted by Johns Hopkins University’s School of Education, will explore an array of timely topics of interest to journalists from across the country, with a thematic focus on student success, safety, and well-being.