By Susan O’Connor, Ph.D. Associate Professor, Augsburg College
Last year, the special education department at Augsburg College engaged five pre-service teacher candidates from our program to join with teachers in classes for students labeled with emotional and behavioral disabilities (EBD).
Working with children from Fridley Middle School in Fridley, Minnesota, the idea was to experiment with a shift from a behavioral to an empowerment approach to pedagogy. The initial goal was to drive institutional change in the field of special education, with a different approach to educating K-12 students and preparing pre-service teachers.
The Augsburg team of faculty and teacher candidates spent a full year working as coaches in a youth civic learning and civic agency initiative called Public Achievement, developed by the Center for Democracy and Citizenship.
In Public Achievement, young people work as teams on public work projects of their choice — collaborative efforts in which they learn the skills of working across differences, negotiating the everyday politics of their local settings, and developing a civic language to understand themselves as responsible and efficacious citizens.
In this case, working with the Public Achievement approach sharply broke the mold of special education, which often uses behavior modification techniques, such as students needed to earn points or rewards for positive behavior
Students met with pre-service teachers or coaches on a weekly basis to determine what they wanted to work on and how they would go about achieving their goals. The two classroom teachers also held a class in public achievement daily to reinforce the work. Students made phone calls to businesses, wrote letters, invited community members, such as vets who were homeless and representatives from solar energy companies, to the school to gain perspective on the issues they were pursuing. They spent a day at the State Capitol meeting with legislative representatives on issues of homelessness and presented to the Fridley School Board their findings on the potential for solar energy savings for the school. All of these activities needed curriculum in a meaningful and hands on way.
The results far exceeded what we thought would be achieved and change occurred on every level. I don’t know that any of us faculty or classroom teachers thought we would see such engagement and transformation from the students. This might say more about our training programs and the field than anything. It confirmed that these are not “bad” kids but rather kids who need a venue which recognizes their abilities. Pre-teachers were also greatly impacted. The opportunity built confidence and allowed them to learn a different way of dealing with behavior. They were able to see the students as just that, students. Children who are not defined by their label but rather their potential. For us faculty, we learned the more we stepped back and acted more as guides to our coaches (pre-service teachers) they, like the K-12 students, rose to the occasion and took on leadership roles.
In my over 30 years in the field amidst all of the standards, testing and techniques that continue to be set forth, I have never seen any process that has had as great an impact in this period of time. Against the grain of the “EBD” label, these young people – who were often labeled “problem students” – became “problem solvers.” They took responsibility for decision-making and action steps on two projects, bringing solar energy to their school and exploring policy issues and developing support for families who are homeless.
“Public Achievement is about adults letting us make a change,” explained one Fridley Middle School sixth grader. “They let our class choose what we wanted to do to make a change in our community. The students do all the big stuff and the adults do the little stuff.”
The project with Public Achievement also resulted in positive changes among classroom teachers, college faculty, and school and community culture. These broke down stigms of students labeled EBD and created a platform and method for them to develop as confident, skilled public actors.
Cheryl McClellan, one of the graduate students, sums up her transformation, “This project has challenged my assumption… I now have a new understanding of civic engagement as a teaching tool and philosophy capable of bridging the divide between special education and the greater community.”
In her view, “Leaders and visionaries have emerged from this group of students often labeled as ‘behavior’ problems. The students have announced their presence to the school community and redefined what it means to be in an EBD special education program.”
Working with Dennis Donovan, national Public Achievement organizer, the Augsburg Special Education team will incorporate Public Achievement into our entire core curriculum next year. We see the model as relevant for the whole field of special education.
Susan O’Connor is a member of the education department andcoordinates the special education program at Augsburg College. She earned her master’s and PhD in special education from Syracuse University at Syracuse, NY. Her research interests are in disability studies, diversity and issues related to families of children with disabilities. More recently, she has developed a model for public achievement with students with mental health needs. She has extensive international experience, having worked in Morocco and the West Bank.
Freshmen at Stanford University in the late 1920s and ‘30s, were required to take a year-long course called “Problems of Citizenship.” The course was one-fourth of the normal first-year undergraduate curriculum, and was rooted in the judgments of the University’s founders, Jane and Leland Stanford, that education for civic leadership should be a primary goal of an undergraduate education. In the words of Mrs. Stanford, “While the instruction offered must be such as will qualify the students for personal success and direct usefulness in life, they should understand that it is offered in the hope and trust that they will become thereby of greater service to the public.”
In the opening lecture in 1928, the first year the course was offered, Professor Edgar Eugene Robinson told students that “citizenship is the second calling of every man and woman. You will observe as we go forward that our constant endeavor will be to relate what we do and say to the facts of the world from which you came and in which all of you will live, and to correlate the various aspects of the modern scene, so that it will appear that citizenship is not a thing apart, something to be though of only occasionally or left to the energies of a minority of our people, but that its proper understanding is at the very root of our daily life.”
Robinson reported that some 60 other colleges and universities had developed similar courses, and he expected that many others would follow.
So what happened? Why did education for civic leadership, the subject of this course, disappear from the curricula of Stanford, and other American colleges and universities?
In essence, I think the answer is that in the immediate post WW II years, disinterested, disengaged analysis became the dominant mode of academic inquiry, and quantitative methods became the primary tools of that analysis. What was previously called government or politics became political science, with a stress on positivism. Students were no longer encouraged to become engaged politically engaged. They were to be observers, not participants. And this disengaged perspective had a powerful effect not just on college students, but on the teaching of what had been called civics in secondary schools. The primary aim of high-school civics courses in the era before WW II had been to prepare young students to be actively engaged, responsible civic leaders in their communities, involved in politics at every level. The new trend drained the civics courses of their activist aims. They substituted learning about government rather than participating in it.
Fortunately, a movement is now going forward under the broad umbrella of DemocacyU to engage students as active participants in democracy on local, state, and national levels. Students are not alone responsible for fixing the messes that have been created by past inattention to the need for civic engagement. But unless they are prepared to engage in democracy—and not simply sit on the sidelines—the mess can only get worse—much worse. Colleges and universities, key places of transition for students, are ideal places for students to gain the knowledge, skills, and motivation to be civically engaged.
Thomas Ehrlich is a Visiting Professor at the Stanford University School of Education. He has previously served as president of Indiana University, provost of the University of Pennsylvania, and dean of Stanford Law School. He was also the first president of the Legal Services Corporation in Washington, DC, and the first director of the International Development Cooperation Agency, reporting to President Carter. After his tenure at Indiana University, he was a Distinguished University Scholar at California State University and taught regularly at San Francisco State University. From 2000 to 2010 he was a Senior Scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. He is author, co-author, or editor of 13 books including Reconnecting Education and Foundations: Turning Good Intentions into Educational Capital (2007); Educating for Democracy: Preparing Undergraduates for Lives of Responsible Political Engagement (2007); and Preparing Undergraduates for Business: Liberal Learning for Professional Education (2011). He is now working on a book about how and why young people should be engaged in public service. He is a trustee of Mills College, and has been a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania and Bennett College. He is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School and holds five honorary degrees.