Berner: How School Culture Boosts Civic Literacy and Shapes the Next Generation of Citizens

How do we prepare the next generation to become active citizens, and what role do schools play in this process?

Political scientists often refer to four common measures of civic behavior: community service, civic skills, political knowledge, and political tolerance. These measures reflect a combination of knowledge about the democratic process, democratic skills such as analyzing legislation and letter writing, and civic attachment, i.e. what my obligations are to this community and this nation?

Of course, the burden of inculcating them does not rest solely with the schools. Citizenship training takes place through many sources, including family, media and social networks. But schools are many students’ first and most enduring experience with civic institutions, and research shows they have an independent effect on civic outcomes.

They weren’t entirely successful. Nationally standardized test results indicate widespread and poor results: in 2014, only 23% of eight AmericansGrade 5 students – in both public and private schools – scored proficient or above on the National Education Progress Assessment civics test.

This means that most of our eightfifth-grade students misinterpreted a graph on voter turnout and incorrectly answered questions such as the types of government in Canada, France, and Australia. Qualitative studies suggest that, for many students, citizenship is little more than thin patriotism or just good neighbourliness.

Stay informed.
Invest in independent journalism. And help The 74 make an impact.

Interesting way, several studies that isolate the “school effect” find a civic benefit in attending private schools – particularly Catholic secondary schools. A new report from the Cardus Religious Schools Initiative, led by David Sikkink of the University of Notre Dame, finds that attending a private school has a long-term positive influence on a component of civic engagement adults: giving and volunteering.

Sikkink and Jonathan Schwartz’s research is based on the panel study of income dynamics — “the oldest longitudinal household survey in the world” – now in its third generation of participants. The research team applied several controls, including socioeconomic status, family religiosity, and educational level, each independently influencing philanthropic patterns. The findings are nuanced, but the Cardus report finds that private schools seem to endow their graduates with identities and values ​​that inspire adults to volunteer beyond those of their public school peers.

Why? What are the specific mechanisms by which schools of all types encourage civic behavior? Researchers disagree on which mechanisms matter most, but researchers believe that all of these have a role: the creation of social capital, high expectations and rigorous academic programs, classroom environments that promote deliberation and debate, strong normative school cultures and school structures that engage parents. . I want to dwell for a moment on the aspect of school culture.

A strong school culture means something very different from a friendly school, a high performing school, or a school with few discipline problems. Rather, it means a school where moral vocabulary, rituals, discipline, academic expectations, and relationships align. Such a school can define its mission, hire teachers and attract students and parents based on a shared vision. Of course, no school does it perfectly – and some barely do. But this enterprise can also grow and deepen and provide shared answers to “Why?” questions that inevitably arise about, for example, what constitutes ethical behavior.

Evidence from around the world suggests that studying within “distinct educational communities in which students and teachers share a common ethos” greatly increases students’ chances of acquiring academic and civic knowledge, skills, and sensibilities. Charles Glenn, professor emeritus of educational leadership and political studies at Boston University, observed that in European school systems (most of which fund religiously, philosophically and pedagogically diverse schools), “schools with of a distinct identity…provide educational benefits arising from their clarity of focus. In a well-known study, Anthony Bryk and his co-authors found this same dynamic in American Catholic schools. Scott Seider has also observed the benefits of a strong normative culture at three very distinct charter schools in Boston.

These results suggest the possibility that effective democratic participation relies on seeing ourselves as more than citizens, and that broader commitments and values ​​inform civic engagement rather than the other way around. In other words, the ability and desire to actively engage in civic behaviors cannot derive from the right to vote alone, nor the philanthropic imperative from a mere understanding of civic institutions. Rather, the identities and values ​​that elicit critique, voluntary activity, and political action seem to be reinforced by appealing to richer claims about the human person and the just society.

Expanding access to private schools requires careful attention to equity, accountability and financing; such programs solve some problems and raise new ones – as I say in depth elsewhere. However, well-designed state support for a wide range of private schools is more likely to help than hinder our national ability to nurture student civic growth. The same goes for policies – as in the UK – that encourage meaningful articulation of distinctive school cultures within the public school sector – as the UK requires of its funded schools.

Ashley Berner is Associate Director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and Adjunct Professor in the School of Education. Palgrave Macmillan released his book Pluralism and American Education: No One Way to Go to School last November.

Martha K. Merrill