Joanne Yatvin is a former teacher, principal, superintendent, and president of the National Council of Teachers of English.


Far too many politicians and ordinary citizens have forgotten that the purpose of American education is as much to support a democratic society, as it is to prepare students to be active citizens, in charge of themselves and their communities. They have also forgotten that the proof of the pudding is not how well our students’ test scores compare with those of other countries but the proportion of American citizens who are leading intelligent, productive, and caring lives.

Ideally, civic learning begins and continues for children at home, mostly by watching, listening, and imitating what good parents do. But not all homes are wise and harmonious, and even the best ones cannot offer the full range of experiences that civic maturity requires.

Traditionally, schools were expected to reinforce civic actions as children grew older, such as developing friendships with students of different backgrounds and taking responsibility for their own behavior. But now the pressure to raise test scores and increase graduation rates has forced most schools to abandon those responsibilities. In enacting harsh discipline policies and expecting academic achievement beyond what is normal, the demands for better test scores have all but wiped out the opportunities for teachers to teach and students to learn the basics of good citizenship. In addition, schools have been forced to reduce or eliminate recesses, and cut back on classes such as art, music, and physical education, where students are most likely to interact positively.

Although teachers do not have the power to change the school curricula or the emphasis on testing, they can eliminate some of the harsh practices that have come with them.  Teachers may still set up processes in the classroom that allow students to have power and work together, such as selecting books to read, planning projects, and developing classroom rules. When students feel that “this is our classroom” rather than the teacher’s personal domain, they will learn how to be responsible citizens in their own school community.

At the school-wide level it is up to administrators to establish policies that respect students’ rights and personal dignity, even when they have broken the rules. One common practice should be giving students a fair hearing before setting any punishment. That means a private meeting with the adults involved after everyone’s temper has cooled. In really serious matters, a hearing before a committee made up of the principal, a few teachers, and one or two community members is the best choice. As for consequences, schools should reconsider suspensions and expulsions for minor offenses by older students and any errors  by young children.

The next step in civic education is having students share decision making with adults in ways that are age-appropriate.  For instance, elementary grade students can work with teachers to choose new playground games and set the rules of participation, while high school students should serve on groups that make decisions about what is best for them, such as curriculum committees and even the local School Board.

In their free time students of all ages should be encouraged to join with adults on local projects such as planting a community garden, adopting a road, or building a playground in a neighborhood that has none.

Once more, I remind you that giving all this attention to student citizenship is not an unreasonable expectation. Until high stakes testing took over our schools, demanding that every school day and every bit of student and teacher effort be dedicated to raising test scores, public support for character building in schools was common. But now, the legislators concerned about school “accountability” have no interest in how students treat each other or how schools treat their students.

Concern for the growth of responsibility and humanity in our children should never be out of style.