Two weeks ago we had the opportunity to visit the Greendale, Wisconsin, School District, outside of Milwaukee. Known for their exemplary commitment to "school climate," the Greendale Schools are outstanding examples of individual school culture effectively expressing their civic mission through positive school climate.
According to the No Excuses report produced by the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, positive school climate is characterized by a clean, welcoming environment with visual reminders of the school’s civic mission—teachers
and administrators who serve as civic role models—students who have the skills, confidence and opportunities to make a difference in their schools and communities—and policies, practices and infrastructure to support civic norms and values.
Why is this important? Because a primary role of schools should be preparing young people for their role as citizens in a democracy. And school climate is every bit as critical to this mission as academic content and teaching excellence. That applies to all students: Greendale students test better than their demographics would predict, and the racial achievement gap is among the lowest in Wisconsin.
What’s the secret of Greendale’s success? Superintendent William Hughes hires student-centered school leaders and staff with a commitment to civic learning. They engage in ongoing professional development, attending and presenting at conferences and sharing their learning with peers back in the district. Building principals know each student by name, and students have an authentic voice in school governance. Faculty focuses on the development of the whole child via district-wide character education initiatives. Service learning is embedded in the curriculum, and student autonomy and ownership are central to the design and execution of all service projects. We were so impressed that we intend to bring the Greendale recipe back to Illinois and work to embed it in the Democracy Schools certification process.
There was an important national convening at the White House on Tuesday: "For Democracy’s Future: Education Reclaims our Civic Mission" addressing the critical, but too often neglected, role that higher education must play in preparing the next generation, not only to be career-ready, but also to be great citizens. The session released an excellent report and call to action – with specific recommendations – from the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement. The report and other materials from the meeting can be found on the Department of Education’s website You can find a video of the session on the White House’s YouTube channel.
This initiative builds on previous work related to improving civic education and civic engagement in K-12 education, including the recently released report "Guardian of Democracy: the Civic Mission of Schools" supported by the McCormick Foundation. You can find a link to that report and more information in our Research & Reports section.
Long-time McCormick grantee Sam Meisels, President of the Erikson Institute, challenges us to look beyond the “panacea” of educational standards in his op ed, "Tripping over the Stairs in the Race to the Top: The Common Core and Early Childhood." He reminds us of what all athletes know: if you start a new sport or exercise with a physical challenge that is too great–one for which you have not spent time preparing–you will not succeed. In fact, you might give up, or worse yet, hurt yourself. We can’t afford to make that mistake in educating our children.
Dr. Meisels, a national expert in assessments for young children, points out that standards are indeed essential for both teaching and assessing children of all ages. But while many in the education field pin all their hopes for fixing our education system on the implementation of Common Core Standards, Dr. Meisels cautions us that they are not a silver bullet and in fact, they need to be modified. Standards should be coupled with sound professional development and assessments. Even more important, the Common Core Standards themselves must take into account the developmental issues of
our youngest children. Standards must look beyond cognitive skills and acknowledge the importance of social emotional skills. Those are the skills that allow teens to turn off X-Box Live to study for tests and the skills that help kids stick with a math problem, even when it is really hard.
Children who encounter "stairs" that are too big—too unrealistic—and teachers who are not prepared to coach young children to meet new challenges, are a formula for losing any race. We can't afford for our children—or their teachers—to give up.