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Posted at 2:06 PM ET, 02/28/2010

How to build real ‘American Schools’

By Valerie Strauss

The controversy over a school girl disciplined by her teacher for refusing to stand up or recite the Pledge of Allegiance threw a spotlight on the First Amendment and how little most of our schools do to educate young people to be smart, active citizens in American democracy.

We talk a lot about the need for kids to be able to compete in the 21st century economy, but far less about how to create citizens capable of participating fully and smartly in our democracy’s civic life.

Every now and then there is a survey that horrifies people:

Just 8 percent of teachers say their school has made a lot of effort to promote First Amendment principles, according to a 2007 Knight Foundation study.

A 2006 survey showed that while more than half the adults surveyed could name at least two members of the Simpsons family, only one in four could name more than one of the five First Amendment freedoms (speech, religion, press, assembly and petition for redress of grievances).

An educator named Sam Chaltain has made remedying this problem his life’s work, and his new book, “American Schools: The Art of Creating a Democratic Learning Community,” is a primer on how and why we need to recreate schools to not only teach kids the skills they need to compete in today’s economy but also to help them develop the understanding and skills to participate in democratic life.

Chaltain, a former teacher, is now the executive director of the non-profit Forum for Freedom and Democracy,
which promotes schools that educate young people for participation in democratic life.

How is that accomplished? By giving young people a change to actually participate in democratic life. It sounds like a no-brainer, yet this has never been the model for most public schools.

After years of working with schools that have tried to do this, Chaltain has a deep understanding of what works and what doesn’t work, how creating real democratic learning communities requires providing enough structure in a school building to allow adults and students to do their best work, but also enough freedom.

“I think one of the central ongoing challenges that is unique to American history is the extent to which we try to strike the right balance between individual freedom and group structure,” he said in an interview. “I think all societies value both structure and freedom but there are very few that go to the extent that we do.”

That balance in schools is the key, and it isn’t easy to strike, as Chaltain shows by telling about the efforts at schools in California, North Carolina and New Hampshire to create democratic environments through a program called the First Amendment Schools. Chaltain was its co-director for five years.

Some worked better than others, and it is a big part of the value of the book that Chaltain shows the less than successful along with the successful.

The book is written in two parts. The first is theory, which brings together ideas from the worlds of education, business and science to explain the foundational thinking behind this kind of schooling and the structure that is necessary for success. The second tells the stories of the theory in practice.

This is worth reading even if you don’t teach or send children to school. The future of our system of government depends on a public school system that graduates students who, now more than ever, understand the requirements of democratic citizenship and who have the sensibilities and skills to meet them.

There are people within the world of education who argue that the central goal of public education should not be the creation of active citizens; that job, they say, is better left to the home and other civic institutions. Chaltain makes a convincing argument otherwise.

For those in the greater Washington D.C. area, Chaltain will be talking about his book at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday at Busboys and Poets at 14th and V Streets N.W. in the District.

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By Valerie Strauss  | February 28, 2010; 2:06 PM ET
Categories:  Civics Education, Sam Chaltain  | Tags:  democratic learning communities, first amendment  
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Maybe the pledge issue has to do with the First Amendment. More likely, some students preferred to be talking, slouching etc. during the pledge which is disrepectful. The teacher over reacts- "Ok everyone stand and say the pledge" The girl who refuses is the scapegoat. She has real reasons for refusing and ends up looking like she is challenging the teacher.

The teacher is seeing this a someone challenging authority.

Posted by: celestun100 | February 28, 2010 3:50 PM | Report abuse

Most American adults and high school graduates do not seem to be "smarter than a fifth grader."

Posted by: Aprogressiveindependent | February 28, 2010 9:47 PM | Report abuse

There is nary a fact or scintilla of evidence to support Emily Strauss' notion that firing teachers @ a Rhode Island school isn't the best course of action.

Consider any one of a number of statements in her piece:

"Recruiting....educators in a poor town with no security" she posits should be difficult. How about the wild success of Teach For America and the fact that they recruit from the best undergraduate programs in America and accept fewer than 33% of applicantts?

"Have to ignore other influences in high school". Of course, this statement belies the success of any one of a number of Charter school systems that do exactly that.

I'd strongly recommend that Ms. Strauss spend some time in any one of a number of successful Charter Schools or simply read Jay Matthews' "Work Hard Be Nice" before writing any more about education issues.
A little education would be good for her.

dave sislen

Posted by: 2520ab | March 1, 2010 6:39 AM | Report abuse

Looking 'way back in time (I am 73), we recited the Pledge of Allegiance every day before classes. The words "Under God" were not in the Pledge at that time. Does that mean that I am not as patriotic as the ones who now recite the Pledge with the additional words? I don't think so.

Our schools now face challenges that were not there when I was in the educational system. One challenge is that there are so many who do not speak English and the teachers have to spend additional time with these students to the detriment of others.

And now that we have computers (wonderful tools) and calculators and all the other electronic gadgets, there is less time spent on the basics - addition, subtraction, division, multiplication, spelling (spell check makes us lazy), punctuation and grammar. Tweeting and twittering, any one?

All you have to do is look through a stack of job applications to see the mispelled words, the grammatical mistakes, the poor handwriting and even printing. Makes one ownder just what education really is or is not.

We have more basic skills that need to be taught to children - without worrying about whether a child stands for the Pledge of Allegiance. Perhaps if more of the history and government of our country were taught, the child would have respect for our flag and the Pledge. As it is now, most children do not have a decent grasp of how our government works and how it became what it is.

Posted by: Utahreb | March 1, 2010 8:37 AM | Report abuse

Our public schools were destroyed years ago by morally and ethically bankrupt fatherless welfare children. Everything that the White protestors against de-segregation said would happen, did.


Posted by: tjhall1 | March 1, 2010 3:09 PM | Report abuse

I grew up saying the pledge every day at school. I also grew up in a religiously diverse community. There were always Jehovah Witnesses in my classes who did not/could not recite the pledge.

I do not understand why this is an issue. Students do not leave their First Amendment rights at the door. Tolerance is an American value.

Posted by: suenoir | March 1, 2010 11:10 PM | Report abuse

How many of the one in four who couldn't could name more than one of the five First Amendment freedoms were teachers?

Posted by: sideswiththekids | March 3, 2010 8:57 AM | Report abuse

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