Meet the Educators Fighting to Restore a Sense of Civic Duty in School Kids


The following is an excerpt from The Death of "Why?": The Decline of Questioning and the Future of Democracy by Andrea Batista Schlesinger. Copyright 2009 Andrea Batista Schlesinger. Reprinted with permission by Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Nancy Gannon is not an ideologue, an America hater, or an activist determined to recruit revolutionaries to her cause. She's just a high school principal.

She's a principal in one of the toughest places to be a principal: the New York City public school system. Yet, despite the enormous challenges of educating children in a city where only slightly more than half of all ninth graders graduate high school, Nancy's mission goes beyond securing as many diplomas as possible. She told me she wants to help prepare citizens who are equipped with "voice, power, and responsibility."

This is probably why the very first schoolwide activity Gannon oversaw as principal at the School for Democracy and Leadership was the registering of eligible students to vote, instilling in them the value of this most fundamental responsibility of American citizenship.

The Crown Heights-based school was motivated by "change" even before it became the motif of the 2008 presidential campaign. Although the focus of the teachers and staff at SDL is to prepare their students for college, they are also, in Gannon's words, "incredibly steeped in activism. We encourage the students to pick something in the world or the community they want to change and then act on it together."

Like the children of Hampton, Virginia, participating in Project Citizen as part of their civics curriculum, the students of SDL are encouraged to put their citizenship into action on a local level. They are required to complete a "change project" of their own choosing each year. These change projects have included writing a proposal for a school library where there was none, working with junior high school students on a project to teach safe-sex education, and building more community through joint poetry readings among the schools that share SDL's campus.

In Gannon's mind, these small efforts at SDL are both preparation for and a microcosm of effective citizenship in our democracy. "To be a good citizen means that you have to be always thinking about your responsibility in the world," Gannon told me. "I think that every school, whatever they call it, should be talking about each of our responsibility to maintain and build responsible community, to look out for those who do not have power and who don't have voice. Those are the reasons I love my country, because I believe that in its best moment that's what it strives to be."

In a time in which the apathy of young people is lamented far and wide, and in which the disaffection of young people in poor, urban communities is apparent, efforts such as SDL's to both educate and engage its student body in strengthening their communities would seem likely to earn universal praise. But, although the word civics inspires wistfulness for a bygone era, there is some controversy today about how schools should express that commitment to preparing effective citizens. Not everyone wants to encourage students to question how democracy is functioning -- in their schools, in their communities, or in their country -- and to figure out how to make it work better. Some believe that such an exercise is inherently unpatriotic. And because the people making that argument have power -- and a megaphone -- it is important to understand their resistance.

Social Justice in the Schools

On the editorial page of the New York Daily News, and in the journal of the Manhattan Institute, the think tank for which he works, Sol Stern put the School for Democracy and Leadership, along with two other small New York City schools, on his "dishonor roll." Why?

According to Stern, "New York City's ideal of public schooling as a means of assimilating all children into a common civic culture is under assault?not by teachers who care too little, but by those who, in a perverse way, care too much." He is talking about SDL's affiliation with a movement of practitioners who believe in "social justice" education, of which Stern and other fellows at conservative, right-wing think tanks have been critical. Educators who subscribe to social justice teaching (also known as critical pedagogy) believe that real-world issues should be brought into the classroom, in any subject from social studies to math, to spark students' questioning of that world and of the systems that govern it.

"It's about seeing yourself not just as a consumer [of information], but as an actor-critic," says the curriculum editor for an educational publisher motivated by the idea "that public education is central to the creation of a humane, caring, multiracial democracy." Social justice teaching "considers how education can provide individuals with the tools to better themselves and strengthen democracy," in the words of one proponent,3 and has its roots in the work of John Dewey, who encouraged teachers to connect students with the world around them so that they could learn more effectively and be better prepared to exercise effective citizenship. Simply put, educators who teach social justice want their students to question power.

There are two specific thrusts to Stern's critique of social justice education as it is embodied by the School for Democracy and Leadership. Underlying both of his arguments, in my view, is a resistance to the notion that schools are a place to prepare young people for their democracy. The first critique is that efforts such as SDL's change project, evidence of the school's commitment to social justice, take time away from what Stern considers to be the appropriate role of public education: teaching the basics.

"Social justice teaching is a frivolous waste of precious school hours, grievously harmful to poor children, who start out with a disadvantage," Stern writes. "School is the only place where they are likely to obtain the academic knowledge that could make up for the educational deprivation they suffer in their homes. The last thing they need is a wild-eyed experiment in education through social action." This emphasis on the basics is consistent with the education policy of the Bush administration, in which the civic purpose of schooling was de-prioritized.

I don't think anyone would dispute Stern's characterization of the urgency of Gannon's mission as an educator. But critics of social justice education, such as Stern, David Horowitz, Phyllis Schlafly, and others, overlook two critical points. First, this "wild-eyed experiment" is in fact a historic function of public schooling, supported by parents who view the schools as institutions to prepare students not only for college and work but also for effective citizenship. Second, there is a mutually reinforcing relationship between civic involvement and academic performance. Students who are more engaged in their communities are also known to have higher levels of academic achievement.

Engagement in their communities provides students with a context for the importance of a basic education: we must read and write if we are to vote, participate, and effectively advocate for ourselves and our communities. Involvement in change projects also cultivates a sense of agency in the students who participate. "The skills you need to do a change project are the same set of skills you need to fill out a college application or follow up on scholarships or get into college and do well there," Gannon told me. "I definitely think that there is a correlation between developing their sense of personal agency and making sure that they feel able and ready to go to college."

And Gannon ought to know. Despite its placement on the Stern dishonor roll, SDL graduated 90 percent of its first graduating class, in a building where the former occupant, serving the same community, graduated only 43 percent. All but two or three of the graduates will immediately go on to college, including some who will attend institutions such as Brown, Williams, Union, and Sarah Lawrence. SDL received an A on its first New York City Progress Report, signaling its strong academic performance, high attendance, and positive student and faculty reviews.7 The change project creates in the students of SDL the sense that they have a role in determining their future and the future of their communities. They show up because they want to learn how.

Matthew Spalding and David Bobb, fellows at the Heritage Foundation, an organization closely aligned with the Manhattan Institute, share Stern's critique of the thinking behind the change projects. In 2005, they wrote in support of Bush's proposal to eliminate funding for the Center for Civic Education, the organization that sponsors Project Citizen and offers 3 million children across the country education about the Declaration of Independence. They saw the Center for Civic Education as "an important shift away from civics education as knowledge toward civics as an activity." It is fair to make the distinction, but the assertion is incorrect. Civics was never intended to be just knowledge but to be a practice for young people learning to navigate their democracy. What the children at the Exploratorium have discovered about learning science is also true of learning about democracy: it is more exciting to learn by actually observing it up close.

The second thrust of the critique is that efforts to connect what students are learning and doing at school to the broader questions facing our democracy are inherently propagandistic. Or, as Stern puts it, that the teachers of schools like SDL are "a group of radical teachers . . . who advocate the use of public school classrooms to indoctrinate students in left-wing, anti-American ideology." As an example, he cites one group of students whose change project was to investigate why the science equipment in their school was so woefully outdated. In the process, they learned how the New York City school system is funded, analyzed the tax policy of New York State, and then decided to take action. The students raised money for an advocacy organization working to secure additional state dollars for city schools, beginning by writing a brochure expressing their "commit[ment] to fighting against the injustice and inequality within our education system."

The students' position on inequality in the New York City public school system is not a radical view. In fact, the historic decision in Campaign for Fiscal Equity, Inc. v. State of New York found that New York State's funding system was inequitable, with disastrous effects for New York City, and required the state to send more money to city schools so that students like those at SDL wouldn't have to learn with antiquated science laboratory equipment. Such a project is certainly not "anti-American." In fact, I can't think of any better experiment in democracy than to support students in writing a pamphlet declaring their support for equality. Sound familiar?

As I noted in chapter 5, it was commonplace in the middle of the twentieth century for high school students to take classes such as Problems in Democracy, in which they discussed current affairs. The idea was to get young people interested in the world around them, to hook them into wanting to learn more about history and social studies by engaging them in contemporary debates. We know from research that students who talk about current events with their families are more likely to be engaged citizens and that engaged citizens who participate in civic activities are better students. When we are invested in the world around us, we want the education that is required to participate actively as a citizen. We need to support more current affairs conversation in today's classrooms, in the absence of its formal place in the curriculum.

But current events, too, strike Stern and others as inappropriate in the context of public schooling. As further evidence of left-wing, anti-American indoctrination, Stern wrote about Jhumki Basu, a ninth-grade science teacher at the Urban Assembly School for Democracy and Leadership, and the "three-week project in her physics class on the international controversy over Iran's nuclear program." He doesn't offer any specific illustrations of how such an idea is "anti-American," likely not because of limited space?his City Journal article is nearly six thousand words?but because there wasn't a case to be made.

What Stern also fails to mention is that, in a nationwide system in which less than 30 percent of high school students take physics, every single student at the School for Democracy and Leadership is required to take physics?a reflection of the school's commitment to high expectations for academic rigor.

When we teach Project Citizen or encourage change projects, when we talk about current events in the classroom, we encourage young people's curiosity about their world. We empower them to solve problems. We offer inspiration for their academic pursuits. The results speak for themselves.

The arguments of Stern, Spalding, and Bobb reflect attitudes that have led us to where we are now, with a radically different notion of the civic purpose of schools. Preparing students to understand the world around them is neither a distraction nor anti-American; it's as American as can be.

Trusting Young People to Question

What's the difference between education and indoctrination? In our popular usage of the term, indoctrination assumes that the consumer of information will not question it. It takes two to tango, and the young people in this school dance are not capable of questioning the information they receive.

Proponents of social justice education, followers of the education theorist Paolo Freire, want to talk to students specifically about the issues that confront our democracy?poverty, homelessness, inequality, racism?and how power structures in our country create and perpetuate these ills. We don't have to be card-carrying Marxists to imagine that such topics will come up in an American classroom today, without prompting, particularly in a school located in a neighborhood like Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where the surrounding community is is 76 percent African-American, 11 percent Hispanic, 11 percent White, and 1 percent Asian, and where 32 percent of children under eighteen live below the poverty line, 23 percent of households get by on less than $15,000 a year, and the median household income is $34,000 a year. Seventy-three percent of the students at the School for Democracy and Leadership qualified for free or reduced-price lunch based on their low socioeconomic status in 2006-07. Some students live in shelters and foster homes.

Yet, to critics such as Stern or David Horowitz of the David Horowitz Freedom Center, discussions of poverty and oppression have an ulterior motive: to indoctrinate students in anti-American views. According to Horowitz, social justice educators are working to convey the message that "American society is an inherently 'oppressive' society that is 'systematically' racist, 'sexist,' and 'classist' and thus discriminates institutionally against women, nonwhites, working Americans, and the poor."17 Stern speaks similarly of social justice educators: "In their ideologically induced paranoia about America, the radical education theorists, like most ideologues, cannot see what is right in front of their eyes?that America and democratic capitalism are actually doing very well, thank you."

As our nation confronts the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression, in which joblessness will continue to soar and more of the parents of SDL children will find themselves in food banks instead of school supply stores, we can be assured that seeds of doubt about our system of democratic capitalism need not be planted by teachers. So just who is out of touch?

Students will always bring their experiences to bear when questioning the system around them. That is natural and, frankly, it should be encouraged. But we should not be so quick to assume that facilitating those conversations results in the creation of unpatriotic, anticapitalist leftists. The young people at SDL?as is true anywhere?identify with a variety of perspectives across the political spectrum. There are students who may join the Peace Corps one day and those who are already signing up for the Marine Corps. They can talk about poverty while still believing in our system of democratic capitalism; I do it all the time. Ultimately, we must trust that young people can question what they see around them and still fall in love with their democracy.

In fact, there is no evidence that conversations with young people about challenges to democracy are necessarily liberal. It could just as likely be the opposite. Peter Levine, an expert in the field of civics education, told me that "the only evidence we've ever had was asking kids what themes they remembered in their own high school (civics) classes, and the themes they remember are highly conservative."

We just can't make assumptions about what we think young people will say or think. Levine, who conducted an intensive project with children from Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, found that "if you get a bunch of kids together and they start talking about what should be done about school systems, they don't talk about more teacher salaries and stuff like that. They talk about [how] the schools have gone to hell because there is no discipline. They talk about more school choice. I don't think you get necessarily lefty solutions out of kids. Maybe you should, but you don't." We need to trust that young people can formulate their own opinions. They may surprise us.

We also need to trust their teachers?including those who want to encourage young people to question their democracy and to follow those questions into creating concrete change in their communities. When we call Gannon and the teachers at the School for Democracy and Leadership?all of whom are desperate to engage students in the learning that represents their only chance of surpassing the expectations for their neighborhood?"radical teachers using the classroom to trash the American system,"we not only mischaracterize their motives but also create the perception that what they are doing is unpatriotic. No one wants to be labeled an ideologue, and certainly not in the pages of the New York Daily News. The intention is to silence teachers, and it's the oldest game in the book.

It is a troubling irony that this lack of faith in students and teachers emanates from think tanks on the conservative right, whose principal message is that we ought to trust people to make their own decisions.

An even more painful irony is that a writer such as Stern heralds the "democratic optimism of the Founding Fathers, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr.," wishing that it was they who inspired people such as Gannon, while failing to acknowledge that, in their time, these people, too, were considered radical and antiestablishment for their questioning of the status quo. The Founding Fathers questioned why they could not live in a democracy; King questioned why our democracy would not let him live as the Founding Fathers had envisioned.

We need more SDLs today. We need more innovative small schools that will restore the connection between young people and their communities and cultivate the skills of inquiry, problem solving, and creative thinking that our democracy and our economy desperately need. Such efforts should be encouraged, not censured, and such teachers should be supported, not labeled. Those who are most powerless in our system today -- the children of the School for Democracy and Leadership -- are the children we must engage the most. When we enable them to talk about what they see, to learn that they can improve their communities, we cultivate their faith in their democracy and in themselves.

To rebuild our civic fabric, we'll need to resist the temptation to fear inquiry. We'll need to trust in the power of our democracy to weather all of the questions we have. Democracy is, after all, always the answer.

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