Democracy Prep: “No Excuses” Schools that Build Citizens?

Professors, pundits, and Cassandras intone that democracy is dying. Global surveys of nations show that democratic processes, rights, and responsibilities have taken hits over the last decade. No longer is the U.S. A Nation at Risk (1983), now democracies are at risk. Including America, say  historians and social scientists (see here).

Since the early 20th century, Progressive educators–think John Dewey, Ella Flagg Young, George Counts, William Kilpatrick, and later in the same century Ted Sizer and Deborah Meier–have seen schools as cradles, nay, crucibles of democracy. And over the past century, such schools committed to civic engagement and building citizens out of children and youth have, to varying degrees, made that commitment part of their daily program (see here, here, and here).

With the shadow cast from A Nation at Risk, preparation for global competitiveness has turned U.S. schooling, both K-12 and higher education, into a new vocationalism where students are expected to emerge equipped with knowledge and skills to enter the information-saturated workplace. All well and good since preparation for jobs has historically been part of the American Dream and mission of tax-supported schools. But so has building citizens been a priority in that mission–as parents, educators, and tax-payers have said repeatedly (see here, here, and here).

One charter school network has elevated that commitment to its central mission: Democracy Prep.

History of network

Beginning in 2006 with a handful of sixth grade classes in various schools, the network of Democracy Prep schools has grown to 6,500 students–called “scholars” by DP staff–in 22 schools (with most in New York City and the rest spread across various states. In these lottery-driven, open enrollment schools nearly all are minority and eligible for free and reduced lunch–the measure of poverty used in public schools. The network’s goal is:

Our mission is to educate responsible citizen-scholars for success in the college of their choice and a life of active citizenship.

Its motto is: “Work Hard. Go to College. Change the World.”

Democracy Prep is a “No Excuses” school— of a kind such as the national charter network of Kipp schools and Success Academy (New York City charter school network)–closely managing student behavior and a teacher-directed manner of classroom instruction. As one article put it:

At Democracy Prep Harlem Middle School, a sixth grade math teacher started her class by giving her students exactly four minutes to solve a problem involving ratios. When her watch beeped, homework was collected and all eyes turned to the front of the room.

“Pencils in the groove and you’re tracking me in three, two, one and zero,” she said, using a term common among charter schools where students are frequently instructed to “track” a speaker with steady eye contact and full attention.

Almost everything on a recent visit to a Democracy Prep charter was highly disciplined. Students spoke only when their teachers allowed them. They could lose points for talking out of turn, or chatting in the halls between classes.

Democracy Prep is among several charter networks with a “no excuses” philosophy. Like other charter schools the days are long, running from 7:45 a.m. to 5:15 p.m., and the academics rigorous. But there is also a culture of discipline that can cut both ways. In some schools, and with some families, the tough approach has worked well while for others it has prompted students to leave….

“No excuses means that there’s no excuse for our kids not being successful in the college of their choice and a life of active citizenship,” said Seth Andrew, founder and Superintendent of Democracy Prep….

“Active citizenship” is wrapped into the school curriculum, classroom instruction and regular activities in the community. As the evaluation report said (for full report, click “download publication”):

Democracy Prep encourages civic behavior in students through a variety of curricular and experiential means, including visiting legislators, attending public meetings, testifying before legislative bodies, and discussing influential essays on civics and government. Each election day students participate in a “Get Out the Vote” campaign. Students receive tee-shirts and pamphlets with the slogan “I Can’t Vote, but You Can!” and canvass highly frequented street corners to distribute the message…. As seniors, students enroll in a capstone course in which they develop a “Change the World” project to investigate a real-world social problem, design a method for addressing the issue, and implement their plan….

The clearest indicators of Democracy Prep’s success in promoting civic engagement are the extent to which its students register to vote and participate in elections after they reach age 18. In this report, we measure the impact of Democracy Prep on the key civic outcomes of voter registration and participation in elections. We use Democracy Prep’s randomized admissions lotteries to conduct a gold standard experimental analysis that distinguishes Democracy Prep’s effect from the effects of families, students, and other outside factors….

Does concentrating on civic engagement in such “no excuses” schools, then, –where behavioral rules are strictly enforced and teachers’ direct instruction dominate–make a difference in Democracy Prep’s graduates’ behavior in registering to vote and actually voting?

According to an independent evaluation released recently, the answer is “yes.”

Two key findings are:

  • We find a 98 percent probability that enrolling in Democracy Prep produced a positive impact on voter registration, and a 98 percent probability that enrolling produced a positive impact on voting in the 2016 election.
  • Democracy Prep increases the voter registration rates of its students by about 16 percentage points and increases the voting rates of its students by about 12 percentage points.

Yes, this is only study of Democracy Prep’s outcomes on actual civic participation. And, yes, again the positive effects on adult graduates behavior in registering and voting in an election is one striking outcome but how many served on juries, participated in community organizations, ran for local office, met with neighborhood and city officials, wrote letters, etc. –remain unmeasured outcomes for these alumni.

I also was puzzled by the contradiction between the ‘no excuses” regime in the school and the lack of efforts to introduce democratic practices into classroom and school cultures. Life in school, as Dewey’s Lab School and other similar schools over the past century have shown can have strong student participation and voice.  Yet in such “no excuse” schools without such student voice and participation, there were positive outcomes in registering to vote and actual voting. I wonder how those past and present progressive educators would explain this apparent contradiction.





Filed under leadership, school reform policies

7 responses to “Democracy Prep: “No Excuses” Schools that Build Citizens?

  1. Pingback: Dictating Democracy | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

  2. Laura H. Chapman

    I looked at the report. I was unable to determine differences ( if any) in the registrations to vote and voting activity among parents who accepted the offer and those who did not, or the status of students as recent immigrants. In other words I am a bit less confident than the researchers that family influence was minimal.

  3. Gerald Heverly

    I would love to hear what Dr. Labaree thinks about this. Is this school not a paradox within a paradox? Society can’t (and shouldn’t) decide whether it wants schools to be either a)a competitive arena where kids seek advantages of status or b)a place where society socializes young people for a life within a democratic society.
    Now we have a school where kids acquire social currency (admission to elite universities) while espousing democratic ideals. I, too, was struck by the school’s lack of democratic practices within classrooms. I look forward to the day when the kids mount a libertarian protest of the draconian disciplinary policies!

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