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.

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.

Key Coverage

How Democracy Prep Is Drawing Upon Civics to Challenge Its Students to ‘Change the World’ — Before They Graduate

Jeneba Sy has a way of standing out from the crowd, even one as hectic as this. The senior at Democracy Prep Harlem High School stood smiling behind a desk in the crowded fourth-floor classroom, ready to explain the details of her yearlong capstone project.

A few students thronged around her as others squeezed past. Like her classmates, she introduced herself and gestured toward her visual aid, a foldable display board covered in quotes and statistics about the research she’d conducted this year.

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.

Key Coverage

Lessons on U.S. Constitution Find New Relevance

In an age when the nation is deeply divided politically, those who teach about the U.S. Constitution are on the front lines of guiding their students to a deeper understanding of civics.

“With my seniors, current events are an issue every single day,” said Elizabeth Schley, an AP Government and Politics teacher at Basha High School in Chandler, Ariz. “At the beginning of the semester, they thought they were just going to sit here and argue for the entire hour. But that’s not what we do.”

Key Coverage

Not Your Average Student Council: How Chicago’s Student Voice Committees Are Giving Kids a Real Say in Their Schools

The students at Mather High School in Chicago wanted to do something. Their peers said they didn’t feel comfortable coming to school, weren’t paying attention in class, and sometimes skipped lessons altogether.

So a small group of students tried to figure out what the root of the problem might be. They talked to their classmates, interviewed teachers, and researched what other schools were doing to help students feel connected. Finally, they decided they were going to improve the relationships between the school’s 100 teachers and 1,500 students.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

How Did Education Fare at the Ballot Box in 2018?

What was the big takeaway for education in the 2018 elections? Sorry if this disappoints, but there just doesn’t appear to be a clear, simple story to tell. It was an election of seeming contradictions.

This was especially true in gubernatorial races, which matter a lot, given the key role state leaders play in education.

Key Coverage

Midterm Elections in the Classroom: Local Issues and Longstanding Themes

How do you make the midterm elections come alive, especially for students who already feel disenfranchised? That was the challenge faced by Chelsea Ann Hittel, a social studies teacher at the Heather Ridge School, an alternative middle and high school in Frederick County, Md. Most of her students attend the school because they didn’t succeed in a regular high school curriculum; many are on individualized education programs. “The curriculum for government is very dry and unengaging, honestly. Kids come into government already hating it. They think it’s going to be boring,” Hittel said.

Key Coverage

Teaching the Midterm Elections: Voter Turnout and Its Implications – Curriculum Matters

Today, we’re highlighting Kathleen Argus, a teacher at the Institute of Technology, a public high school in Syracuse, N.Y., who teachers a 12th grade active citizenship course. 

Teaching about elections poses some particular challenges in New York, a state that nearly always winds up blue in presidential elections thanks to the dominance of New York City. So, from a certain angle, the midterms are even more important for the state’s electorate: That’s where upstate districts and counties can really make their voting power felt. 

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Social and Emotional Learning: From Theory to Practice

At Hazel Wolf STEM K-8 School in Seattle, academics don’t start on the first day of school.

“We haven’t yet built community,” teacher Tamara Alston said. “We haven’t figured out how we work together.”

Blog: The Educated Reporter

What’s Motivating Teens to Vote?
Education Week survey, national polls offer insights into young voters

In a new national survey, concern about the February shootings at a high school in Parkland, Fla., was the top reason cited by eligible teen voters as motivating them to cast a ballot. And students who said they had taken civics classes were also more likely to say they planned to exercise their right to vote in the midterm elections.

Key Coverage

Where Prospective, First-Time Voters Get Informed

Nick Brown turned 18 in September and will vote for the first time in November. But the Brandon, S.D., resident admits he has some research to do.

“As of right now I know nothing,” said Brown, whose high school law and government teacher registered voting-age students in class. “I don’t follow politics at all, so I need to educate myself before I go in and vote.”

Key Coverage

Is America’s Next Generation of Voters Ready for the Job?

A little more than a third of 18- and 19-year-olds who participated in an online survey by the Education Week Research Center in September said they had never taken a stand-alone civics class. Yet students who took those courses were more likely to say they plan to vote. Just a quarter of people who have never taken a stand-alone civics class plan to vote. Nearly twice as many do not, said Holly Kurtz, the research center’s director. T

Survey of Teen Voters: What’s on Their Minds as Election Nears?
Webinar

Survey of Teen Voters: What’s on Their Minds as Election Nears?
Get embargoed access to Education Week data, analysis at reporters-only webinar

Millions of young people — including many college students and some still in high school — will get their first chance to vote in a general election in November. What is on the minds of these youths, who have come of age in the time of President Trump and when the school shootings in Parkland, Fla., have helped to catalyze a surge of student activism?