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

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?

EWA Radio

What Does Hate Look Like in Schools? Education Week and ProPublica Show Us.
Is President Trump's Fiery Rhetoric Fueling Incidents at Public Campuses?
(EWA Radio: Episode 177)

Swastikas scrawled on bathroom walls. A confederate flag hanging behind a teacher’s desk. Chants of “build the wall” aimed at Hispanic students. As part of ProPublica’s “Documenting Hate” project, Education Week tallied incidents of harassment, bullying, graffiti and more at public schools across the country. The team, including Education Week’s Francisco Vara-Orta, sifted through thousands of tips, as well as news coverage of incidents from across the nation.

Key Coverage

These California School Districts Joined Forces to Bolster Social-Emotional Development

As they progress through school, students are getting better at believing they can master challenging subjects, but they are getting worse at managing their behavior and empathizing with others.

Those are highlights of a recent study of nearly 400,000 California students in some of the state’s largest school districts, which have collaborated over the past several years to teach and measure a common set of social-emotional learning skills.

Key Coverage

Growing Pressures Feed Kids’ Mental Health Issues, Expert Says

It’s not your imagination, or mere nostalgia for the good ol’ days: Today’s children and teens have more mental-health problems than earlier generations.

The reason is a mix of social, environmental and even dietary factors, but the problem is growing, said experts speaking Wednesday to the Columbus Metropolitan Club.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Seminar

Beyond Academics: Covering Education for Character and Citizenship

The intensive focus in many public schools on basic academics has sparked concerns that the U.S. education system is neglecting a fundamental responsibility: to foster in young people the character traits and social-emotional skills needed to be successful students and engaged citizens. Empathy, collaboration, and self-efficacy, for instance, are essential in a democratic society. They also are important for success in a fast-changing job market.

EWA Radio

‘Raising Kings’: A Portrait of an Urban High School for Young Men of Color
Education Week-NPR series features social-emotional learning and restorative justice at new D.C. campus

Can schools ever fully fill the gaps in students’ life experiences that often keep them from succeeding in school? Two reporters, Education Week’s Kavitha Cardoza and Cory Turner of NPR, spent hundreds of hours at Ron Brown College Prep, a new boys-only public high school in Washington, D.C. that primarily serves students of color.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Student ‘Expeditions’ Help Drive, Inspire Learning at D.C. Charter School

The second-graders at a charter school in the nation’s capital recently discovered a problem: a lack of “green spaces” in certain parts of the city.

The students at Two Rivers Public Charter School conducted research. But they didn’t stop there. They also wrote letters to the city council to share their concerns about inequitable access to green spaces across Washington, D.C.

The letters described the situation, explained why having such spaces in urban environments is important, and offered solutions, including the idea of helping to plant gardens near campus.