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Teach students about civics through schoolwide governance

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Abstract

Building democracies in K-8 schools is a promising approach to increasing young people and educators’ civic knowledge, skills and dispositions. The Rendell Center for Civics and Civics Engagement leveraged strategies and concepts from the fields of civic education, student voice, and distributed leadership to build a youth-adult school governance system and schoolwide civic literacy curriculum at Edwin M. Stanton Elementary School in the School District of Philadelphia. Their yearlong effort to build schoolwide civic learning illustrates how civics can be an effective conduit for connecting curriculum and leadership practices: School improvement becomes both a collective endeavor and a means for teaching active citizenship.
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MARC BRASOF (brasofm@arcadia.edu; @brasof) is an assistant professor of education at Arcadia University, Glenside, Pa.
ANNE SPECTOR (@therendellctr) is director of curriculum at the Rendell Center for Civics and Civic Engagement, Philadelphia, Pa.
Teach students about
civics through schoolwide
governance
An organization that promotes civics education used a student government
model to teach students concepts of democracy and also showed the
adults that students could be useful partners in school governance.
By Marc Brasof and Anne Spector
The Rendell Center for Civics and Civic Engagement is engaged in a bold experiment to create democ-
racies in elementary schools to increase youth’s civic literacy and civic engagement. Our goal is to cultivate
the next generation of active citizens. Our approach is to do so by helping K-8 schools build civic cur-
riculum and youth-adult governance structures so students learn and practice the knowledge and skills of
effective citizenship. What follows is the story of and lessons from the center’s yearlong involvement to
build a youth-adult school governance system and schoolwide civic literacy curriculum at the K-8 Edwin
Stanton School in Philadelphia, Pa.
The premise of the Rendell Center’s approach is that civic learning needs to be schoolwide and experi-
mental: Students learn civic knowledge and skills in classroom settings and apply their learning in a youth-
adult, decision-making structure. This approach calls for challenging educators’ assumptions about young
Image: Thinkstock/Hemera
64 Kappan April 2016
concepts in the We the Civics Kids materials. Those
materials emphasize eight lessons:
• Community building;
• Rules;
• Choices and voices;
• American identity;
• Leadership;
• Rights and responsibilities;
• Conict and compromise; and
• Youth activism.
For example, during a read-aloud and class discus-
sion of Carl the Complainer by Michelle Knudsen,
students learned about the importance of becoming
active, involved change agents in their classrooms,
schools, homes, and communities. Carl did not get
the change he wanted until he realized that he needed
to use his responsible voice to address the change, as
opposed to complaining about it. Working on a liter-
ature-based mock trial based on the James Marshall
version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, a 3rd-grade
class identified the roles and responsibilities of the
people in a courtroom. Serving as bailiff, attorney,
or jury member, students demonstrated an increased
ability to develop opinions and support them with
what they learned preparing and arguing their trial.
A deeper understanding
After the Rendell team’s lessons were piloted,
teachers began to integrate civics literacy into their
own classroom literature and across all disciplines.
Fourth-grade teacher Joan Carter-Williams, for ex-
ample, was able to connect civic engagement with
the stories in the classroom anthology that had an
environmental theme. Giving students a deeper
knowledge of what they can do for their environ-
ment helped them to better realize the importance of
the community garden they already had established.
Supporting the conversation were pieces of litera-
ture such as The Garden on Green Street by Meish
Goldish and City Green by DyAnne DiSalvo-Ryan.
(Green Street is about a neighborhood that unites to
create a community garden on an empty lot; City
Green, also a picture book, highlights urban renewal
and community action.) For some, integrating civ-
ics into established curriculum happened naturally.
For others, it took time to gain a deeper knowledge
of the myriad ways the change promoted by We the
Civics Kids enhances instruction and raises student
performance.
By midyear, Stanton K-4 educators were well on
their way to building a community of knowledgeable
and engaged young citizens. To continue this spread,
Stanton staff and students learned about America’s ju-
dicial system by writing and arguing a literature-based
mock trial. This experience took students into the gray
people’s leadership abilities and for redesigning de-
cision-making structures and processes. One impor-
tant hurdle is that the current era of accountability
sidelines civics and history instruction in many el-
ementary schools in favor of numeracy and literacy
lessons in order to prepare students for high-stakes
testing (Rentner et al., 2006). Thus, establishing a
schoolwide civic curriculum requires educator buy-
in and integration of established pedagogical prac-
tices and instructional coaching.
Building civic learning into organizations not fo-
cused on civics instruction requires multiple levels of
school change that are deep and wide. A new gover-
nance system would need to be designed and imple-
mented — one that values youth-adult leadership
practices as a form of civic learning. Civic curriculum
and instructional practices would need to be mod-
eled and thoughtfully integrated into already estab-
lished pedagogical practices. Our approach was in-
formed by research on sustaining education change.
Cynthia Coburn (2003) argues that sustainability re-
quires scaling up specific changes within a school by
spreading underlying beliefs, norms, and principles of
the reform and shifting the ownership of reform from
a few actors to many. In other words, more than the
authors would need to believe civic instruction and
youth-adult leadership are central school practices
and have the knowledge and skills to engage students
in civic learning.
Curricular spread
Using common language and instructional prac-
tices across grades was essential for scaling up civic
learning at Stanton. K-4 students participated in lit-
eracy lessons and then connected their discussions to
concepts unpacked in the Rendell Center’s We the
Civics Kids materials. Then, students in grades 1
through 7 participated in a literature-inspired mock
trial, bringing classroom learning of civic concepts
to a broader context and facilitating a wider spread
of the principles, beliefs, and norms of democracy
throughout the school.
The main conduit for civic literacy instruction in
the K-4 classrooms was using age-appropriate non-
fiction, historic fiction, and fiction books and con-
necting classroom discussions to civic themes and
The culminating activity was for the
participants to prepare and argue the
case of The State v. Goldie Locks, which
highlights the issue of criminal trespass.
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bers of the school. Students not only learned civics,
they had some agency over curriculum.
Spreading governance
The National Center for Learning and Civic En-
gagement’s recent report, State Civic Education Policy
Framework (Baumann, Millard, & Hamdorf, 2014),
calls on policy makers and educators to improve
civic learning by cultivating participatory institu-
tional cultures in schools. One strategy is to lever-
age students as assets for school change, which the
Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools (2011)
also concludes is an effective strategy for increasing
civic learning. In other words, students learn civics
and increase their belief in the efficacy of democ-
racy when they engage in school decision-making
processes that affect them daily.
Still, the lack of youth-adult leadership structures
in schools, combined with educators’ belief about
young people’s abilities to participate in school deci-
sions, creates real hurdles. Often adults do not view
young people as mature or knowledgeable enough
to handle sophisticated school problems (Costello et
al., 1997). These beliefs often translate into school
structures that place students on the fringes of school
change processes rather than as central stakeholders
where important decisions are made. The Rendell
Center approaches the idea of students becoming
assets for school change.
We used our first in-service session with the entire
staff and administration to recognize unproductive
beliefs and norms and illustrate how young people’s
perspectives are vital when revising ineffective poli-
cies and practices. We presented a real case study
highlighting the importance of youth-adult leader-
ship (Brasof, 2011). In that case, a nearby high school
experienced many students roaming the building
during lunchtime, eventually leading to one stu-
dent spraining an arm during a game of tag. Simu-
lating a task force, participants had to determine a
policy to address this situation. Having facilitated
this simulation in many settings and understanding
student voice research, it was no surprise that most
participants blamed the students. Their suggestions
for policy solutions reflected the belief that to con-
trol students, the school should punish them for not
being in the cafeteria and increase enforcement by
area of democratic deliberation by creating a space
where each student could form and support his or her
own opinion about an ethically unclear dilemma, a
frequent feature of democratic societies. To introduce
mock trial, the Rendell team presented a professional
development seminar that took Stanton’s educators
through the steps of writing their own case. The cul-
minating activity was for participants to prepare and
argue the case of “The State v. Goldie Locks,” which
highlights the issue of criminal trespass. Modeling and
then mentoring the mock trial process and then al-
lowing educators to decide the level to which each of
their classes should participate proved to be the best
way to spread and shift civic learning.
In the last marking period of school, students in 1st
through 7th grades participated to varying degrees
in the mock trial. The 1st and 3rd grades, in col-
laboration with the Rendell team, chose the James
Marshall version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears on
which to base their trials. Upper grades worked with
teacher-selected fiction that included Fantastic Mr.
Fox by Roald Dahl in 4th grade, When You Reach Me
by Rebecca Stead in 6th grade, Monster by Walter
Dean Myers in 7th grade, and The Giver by Lois
Lowry in the 8th grade.
Each piece of literature illustrated an ethically
challenging conflict. For example, Mr. Fox’s family
was starving. In order to feed them, Mr. Fox stole
food from the farmers. Thus, the jury had to decide
if Mr. Fox should be found guilty of stealing, given
testimony from witnesses on both sides of the argu-
ment. In Monster, the challenge was to determine if
defendant Steve Harmon was simply in the wrong
place at the wrong time or whether he had made the
wrong decision to get connected with the neighbor-
hood hoodlums. For this trial, 7th graders explored
the idea of the extent to which a person is judged by
the company he or she keeps.
Some classes wrote and tried a case based on their
book’s main tension; others participated as jurors.
This constructivist approach to curriculum and
cross-class collaborations provided students an op-
portunity to deepen their understanding of the ju-
dicial system. The result is that it spread the beliefs,
principles, and norms of democracy to many mem-
The current era of accountability
sidelines civics and history instruction
in many elementary schools in favor of
numeracy and literacy lessons in order
to prepare students for high-stakes
testing.
After reviewing the underlying
principles, beliefs, and norms of
youth-adult leadership, the entire
staff developed a list of rights and
responsibilities as a means of triggering
the beginnings of a schoolwide civic
culture.
66 Kappan April 2016
lowing up with a list of responsibilities (norms) to
ensure these rights (principles) are upheld, including
requirements that students “listen and accept con-
sequences” and “[speak] one at time and express my
opinions . . . listen to others respectfully and without
judgment.” This instructional activity was an impor-
tant starting point because civic concepts became a
means to foster youth-adult dialogue about policies
and practices across the school.
In the lower grades
As lower-grade teachers worked on civic literacy
curriculum and instructional practices, 5th- through
8th-grade teachers collaborated during in-services
and after-school sessions to write the school’s consti-
tution and supporting civics curriculum. In contrast
to most student councils, which tend to be social
planning committees with very little power, the lan-
guage of Stanton’s governing document integrated
the same constitutional principles and processes
that shaped the federal constitution — separation
of powers, checks and balances, federalism, and indi-
vidual rights — resulting in a three-branch govern-
ment where youth and adults share power to create,
implement, and review school policies and practices.
Once upper-grade educators had created a work-
ing draft, it was necessary to present the work to the
rest of the school and have students and educators
study its language and constitutional concepts. It was
imperative that both curricular and governance re-
structuring activities happen in concert so educators
could see how school leadership practices and civic
curriculum are integrated (Brasof, 2015). Upper-
grade teachers taught students, teachers, adminis-
tration, and staff how to read their newly written
constitution and discussed possible changes. Their
efforts led to a successful ratification vote.
Stanton now had a youth-adult governance struc-
ture that staff and students were excited to begin us-
ing, said government adviser and 6th-grade teacher
Anne Olvera. Highly competitive executive branch
elections demonstrated the excitement about this.
Students running for student body president, vice
president, treasurer, and secretary did not prom-
ise vending machines or shorter school days as one
might expect. Instead, students wanted to address
real school issues. As a 7th-grade presidential candi-
date said in her speech, “This school has helped me
mature into an intelligent individual. Stanton will
be known as a great school across Philadelphia that
supports its students in and out of school.”
Articulating students’ role in school improvement
and the importance of democratic participation to
the educator and student audience, one candidate
for vice president said, “We play a big role in the
school; we want to help make school more efficient.”
assigning more educators to lunch duty. Stanton
teachers’ solutions mirrored those of educators at
that nearby school, which exacerbated, rather than
solved the problem. If educators had asked why stu-
dents were behaving as they did, they would have
discovered that students found the school’s food
disgusting and instead spent their lunch money at
local eateries after school. Forcing hungry and un-
occupied students to stay in the cafeteria created
more management problems. Using their youth-
adult governance structure, students at the school
eventually designed an out-to-lunch policy that re-
sulted in a more orderly lunchtime experience and
a happier school community. Such outcomes helped
challenge participants’ deeper beliefs about young
people and about how unilateral leadership practices
inhibit school leaders’ ability to collect information
vital for effective decision making.
After reviewing the underlying principles, beliefs,
and norms of youth-adult leadership, the entire staff
developed a list of rights and responsibilities as a
means of triggering the beginnings of a schoolwide
civic culture. This document translated concepts
such as due process and freedom of speech into
classroom norms. For example, the document out-
lined the belief that each student has the “right to
due process . . . (and to) listen and be heard,” fol-
Books used in teaching civics concepts
Lower grades
Carl the Complainer, Michelle Knudsen
Goldilocks and the Three Bears, James Marshall
version
The Garden on Green Street, Meish Goldish
City Green, DyAnne DiSalvo-Ryan
upper grades
Fantastic Mr. Fox, Roald Dahl
When You Reach, Rebecca Stead
Monster, Walter Dean Myers
The Giver, Lois Lowry
This constructivist approach to
curriculum and cross-class collaborations
provided students an opportunity to
deepen their understanding of the
judicial system.
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said Olvera, recounting the Staff Senate session.
“The discussion triggered new ideas and buy-in. As
a result, they voted for it.”
The bill passed both houses unanimously and
was signed into law by the principal and student
body president. The school community also came
together to make this end-of-year event a success.
The parent community donated over 500 gifts, and
10 volunteers helped run the event. Student rep-
resentatives helped every teacher and their classes
come up with and manage a game. School treasurer
and 7th grader Tayjonna said:
Everybody really knew what to do and was able to
contribute. We got to be kids and have a break from
academics. A lot of parents volunteered, which helped
the community become more aware of our school.
Lots of the teachers told me how great Fun Day was
and that they couldn’t wait to go next year.
Monsalud agreed, giving a teacher’s perspective:
Teachers really came through. Even when the weather
forced us to shorten the event, ruining teachers’ lunch
period, no one complained and everyone remained
flexible. Everyone seemed to really enjoy working
together. It was mission accomplished. We got to
celebrate our community.
A community around school government activity
had emerged. Olvera, Monsalud, and Tayjonna be-
gan thinking of ways to improve the event and to look
at other serious school issues that their government
might consider tackling next year, including resource
distribution, scheduling, and dress code. Just as im-
portant, Fun Day shifted ownership of youth-adult
leadership to many members of the school’s com-
munity and spread the underlying beliefs, principles,
and norms set forth in their newly written constitu-
tion. “Not everyone was really sure how government
was going to work at first,” Tayjonna said. “Now,
after Fun Day, people understand government bet-
ter; they want to join and help out.”
Review and reflection
Building civic literacy into classroom and school-
wide instructional practices and developing a youth-
adult governance model is a unique approach to civic
learning and school improvement in elementary
schools. As a leading initiative in civic education, the
Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools (2011)
stresses the importance of connecting school gover-
nance, curriculum, and extracurricular activities to
civic learning, making school a space where the aims
of building a better society through democratic prin-
ciples and processes can be realized. Furthermore,
the efficacy of youth-adult leadership for improving
school is thoroughly documented (Brasof, 2015). Yet
Students illustrated that their perspectives and solu-
tions for school changes should be taken seriously
and that spread was occurring. These are some ideas
articulated in electioneering speeches:
• Improve lunch procedures and have older
students sit with younger, more disruptive
students;
• Raise funds for more eld trips (in the wake of
major budget cuts over the past five years);
• Build community across students, teachers, and
parents;
• Reform uniform policy;
• Establish a peer mediation program;
• Start a student-led tutoring club to help
struggling students; and
• Develop extracurricular sports.
Student and teacher views
Rickey, a charismatic 6th grader running for presi-
dent, received huge cheers when advocating for a
“better balance between standardized tests and cel-
ebrating community.” Rickey won the presidency.
After House of Students elections were held, stu-
dents wrote their first bill — Fun Day. Their inten-
tion: Build a greater sense of community throughout
the school. The bill’s executive summary said that, “if
students work together to create a positive day for
our school, we can show how well we cooperate and
work together to impact our community.”
Fun Day Bill (HS-01) specifically focused on com-
munity building and scaling up civic learning in the
school. This policy was more than a social outlet for
students. School government advisers Anne Olvera
and Nicole Monsalud wanted their first bill to be
something the school community could rally around.
In it, all teachers and members of government were
assigned responsibilities for ensuring Fun Day was a
collective endeavor, reinforcing the spread and shift.
“Teachers felt like their voices were heard too,”
Building civic literacy into classroom and
schoolwide instructional practices and
developing a youth-adult governance
model is a unique approach to civic
learning and school improvement in
elementary schools.
68 Kappan April 2016
implemented, and reviewed. Furthermore, Burnley
leveraged the power of the principalship so civics had
a prominent place in school change work. Burnley
carved out time for professional development and
space in the school’s program of studies for cross-
grade and interdisciplinary collaborations.
Building democracies in elementary schools is
possible and holds the potential to increase civic
learning and improve other school policies and prac-
tices. Stanton’s approach to civic education presents
a promising new model of civic learning and school
leadership — one in which youth-adult leadership
activity has the potential to create a community fo-
cused on school challenges and simultaneously build
the capacity of youth to be active citizens.
K
References
Baumann, P., Millard, M., & Hamdorf, L. (2014). State
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Brasof, M. (2011, October). Student input improves behavior,
fosters leadership. Phi Delta Kappan, 93 (2), 20-24.
Brasof, M. (2015). Student voice and school governance:
Distributing leadership to youth and adults. New York, NY:
Routledge.
Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools. (2011). The
guardians of democracy. Philadelphia, PA: University of
Pennsylvania, Leonore Annenberg Institute for Civics of the
Annenberg Public Policy Center. www.civicmissionofschools.
org
Coburn, C.E. (2003). Rethinking scale: Moving behind
numbers to deep and lasting change. Educational Researcher,
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Costello, J., Toles, M., Spielberger, J., & Wynn, J. (1997).
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Hartley, D. (2010). The management of education and the
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capital to the classroom: Year 4 of the No Child Left Behind
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dc.org/displayDocument.cfm?DocumentID=301
establishing such forms of civic learning in today’s
education policy climate presents many challenges.
Addressing gaps in instructors’ skills and structural
and cultural inhibitors is necessary. Principal support
is central to initiating and sustaining these kinds of
school changes.
Spread and shift can occur when the principal
shares the authority and the responsibility with the
school community (Hartley, 2010). Stanton princi-
pal Stacey Burnley was instrumental in scaling up
civic learning within the school. Burnley ensured
civic learning was a priority for the school in part
by espousing its virtues in shaping the school’s cul-
ture and climate. Such actions encouraged new
leaders to take on the responsibility for engaging in
school change work. Burnley also authorized upper
school teachers and the Rendell team to redesign
the school’s governance structure knowing that more
members of the school community would have for-
mal say on how polices and practices are designed,
The lack of youth-adult leadership
structures in schools, combined with
educators’ belief about young people’s
abilities to participate in school
decisions, creates real hurdles.
“I wasn’t daydreaming. I was buffering.”
... Students in the state of Kentucky have conducted action research to advocate for student representation on school boards (Student Voice Team, 2016). Also in the USA, Brasof (2015), Brasof and Spector (2016) and have qualitatively explored the democratic governance practices of individual schools with a strong reputation for meaningful student participation. ...
... This concept of engagement, connection to community and enjoyment resonates with research literature about the significance of student participation for their sense of efficacy: students' belief that they can make a difference in the world(Brasof & Spector, 2016;Mayes, Mitra, & Serriere, 2016; Pawluch, 2016; Student Voice Team, 2016;Zimmerman, Bandura, & Martinez- ...
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Student voice and agency are important topics in education, but related initiatives remain under-investigated. This study investigates the link between student voice and perception of student agency through the introduction of a student-led committee using a longitudinal mixed-method approach in an independent secondary school in Scotland. Paired-samples t-tests were conducted for the students’ (n = 95) responses showing an increase in mean effect (p = 0.025) of the introduction of the committee on student perception of student consultation and decision making in the school. Committee members reported a reduction in their sense of agency (n = 5, p = 0.045). Qualitative data is presented to support the discussion of results which suggest student-led committees affect the perception of student agency and wider school ethos is important.
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Özet 21. yüzyılın en önemli durumlarından birisi çevresindeki problemleri bilen, bu problemlere yönelik hassasiyet gösteren ve problemin çözümü için etkili önlemler alabilen etkin vatandaşlar yetiştirmektir. Bu araştırmada vatandaşın, okuryazarlığın ve yurttaşlık okuryazarlığının ne olduğu üzerinde durulmuş çeşitli etkinlik örneklerine yer verilmiştir. Vatandaş, bir toprak üzerine ve bir devlet çatısı altında yaşayan bireylerin eşit sivil, siyasi ve sosyal haklara sahip ve içinde yaşadığı devlete çeşitli görev ve sorumluluklarının olması durumudur. Vatandaşlar devletin kendisine verdiği hakları kullanır ve bunun karşılığında devlete çeşitli ödevlerle bağlılık taşır. Etkin vatandaşlar ise saydığımız özellikleri etkin bir şekilde kullanmaktadır. Yurttaşlık okuryazarlığı ise etkin vatandaşlık için gerekli bilgi ve beceri setini ifade eder. Yurttaşlık okuryazarlığına sahip olan bireyler etkin vatandaşlardır. Çevresindeki problemlerin farkında, problemleri çözmeye istekli ve problemi çözen bireylerdir. Katılımcı bir ruh halleri vardır. Yurttaşlık okuryazarlığına sahip bireylerin yetiştirildiği derslerden biri sosyal bilgilerdir. Bu bölümde öncelikle yurttaşlık ve yurttaşlık eğitimine yer verilerek yurttaşlık okuryazarlığı açıklanmıştır. Daha sonra Sosyal Bilgiler Dersi Öğretim Programı temelinde yurttaşlık okuryazarlığı ve sosyal bilgiler ilişkisi ele alınarak konuyla ilgili etkinlik örnekleri sunulmuştur.
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Student voice is a concept and a set of approaches that position students alongside credentialed educators as critics and creators of educational practice. Student voice and student agency are closely linked when school stakeholders connect the sound of students speaking with students having the power to influence practices and analyses of education. In this article I draw on empirical studies conducted in a range of contexts to present an overview of approaches to student voice that foster student agency. These approaches focus on students working with teachers and researchers to analyze classroom practice, engage in research through various methods, and author and co-author texts, all with the goal of maximizing and democratizing education for everyone involved. Implications of this discussion include suggestions for teachers, school principals, teacher educators, and researchers regarding how to support student voice such that it fosters student agency.
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A Philadelphia school teaches democratic practices by including students in formal decision making.
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State civic education policy framework
  • P Baumann
  • M Millard
  • L Hamdorf
Baumann, P., Millard, M., & Hamdorf, L. (2014). State civic education policy framework. Denver, CO: Education Commission of the States and National Center for Learning and Civic Engagement.
From the capital to the classroom: Year 4 of the No Child Left Behind Act
  • V Chudowsky
  • S Joftus
  • D Zabala
Chudowsky, V., Joftus, S., & Zabala, D. (2006). From the capital to the classroom: Year 4 of the No Child Left Behind Act. Washington, DC: Center for Education Policy. www.cepdc.org/displayDocument.cfm?DocumentID=301
Annenberg Institute for Civics of the
  • Leonore Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania, Leonore Annenberg Institute for Civics of the