Tackling "the Empowerment Gap": An Interview with Jefferson County, KY Superintendent Shelley Berman

By vonzastrowc

BermanKYPictWEB.jpgAs the celebrated superintendent of Hudson, Massachusetts schools, Dr. Sheldon Berman distinguished himself as one of the nation's leading champions of civic education. Since coming to Louisville, Kentucky a year ago, Berman has maintained his passionate commitment to civics, though he has altered his approach somewhat to meet the specific needs of students in his large urban district.

Berman recently spoke with us about his work in Jefferson County Public Schools. He told us about the impact of No Child Left Behind on civics education, the consequences of the "Empowerment Gap" for low-income students, and the implications of this historic presidential election for civics education.

Download the full, 15-minute interview here, or listen to five minutes of highlights (a transcript of these highlights appears below).

You can also download any of the following excerpts from the full interview:

Civics and "The Very Mission of Public Education (49 sec.)

Not a Zero Sum Game: Civics, Reading and Math (1:42)

The Task in Jefferson County: Developing Content and Skills; Nurturing Community and Responsibility (4:24)

Closing the "Empowerment Gap": Teaching Poor Students that They Can Make a Difference (3:08)

Learning from the Election: Civics Education as an Antidote to Toxic Politics (1:58)

NCLB and Beyond: Making Civics Education a Matter of Policy (49 sec.)

Parting Thoughts: "Critical to the Future of our Children and the Country as a Whole" (1:12)

Transcript of Interview Highlights
Do you think that schools right now are--generally, in the country--focusing enough on civic education?

BERMAN: I think that there's a serious challenge right now. Social studies and civic education in particular have been sidelined by the pressures of No Child Left Behind. It is really unacceptable that we've placed civics as such a low priority in our assessment process, and then generally in our assessment of schools. There's no reason that we can't have different assessments, [that] we can't have culminating portfolios where students put together a [collection] of work that they've done that shows their engagement in civic issues and their understanding of civic affairs.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Would it be fair to say that there are ways of teaching civics so as to reinforce [subjects] like reading and mathematics?

BERMAN: Absolutely. I've often said that there are really two core subjects that we're teaching. One is science, which tells us how the world works, and the other is social studies, which tells us how people work in the world. Math and reading are the tools to get there. However, we haven't done as good a job at integrating the skill development in reading and math into science and social studies.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Has this marked your work in Jefferson County, in Kentucky?

BERMAN: It has. [Our] work in civic education is around community building, so that the students have a sense that they are part of a larger community. That has two sides to it. One is that the classroom itself is a caring community. And then the other part is taking that feeling of community out and expressing it in terms of literally contributing to others and being part of community service projects which are deeply tied to the curriculum, where students can see that they can make a difference to others and learn from that experience.

Then, obviously, the content of civics is critically important. Third grade will be a primary emphasis on civics and will culminate with a unit on how individuals and organizations make a difference. Even our fourth- and fifth-grade curriculum, which will focus on U.S. history, will pay attention to how people have made a difference in a variety of areas. In particular, in the fourth grade [the curriculum] will look at how individuals have stood up for civil and human rights in our history.

We've made our ninth-grade social studies program a civics course that includes a curriculum called Facing History and Ourselves. The course combines core instruction in civics and how government works and how people make a difference, and then goes on to work with a curriculum that focuses on the issue of genocide. It asks the essential question: How did genocide become state policy in Germany, in Cambodia, in Darfur? How does that happen, and how do we intervene to prevent that?

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: I'm sure you're aware of studies showing that very often its students of color and students who live in poverty who are least likely to become civically engaged. Is this something the work you do in Jefferson County tries to address?

BERMAN: It's absolutely the work that we're trying to address. People tend to go for very simple answers to closing the achievement gap. That is: Let's focus in the curriculum on basic skills, let's not broaden the curriculum. It's very important that we ensure that students have those skills, but the achievement gap is not just about achievement. It's actually about empowerment. And I see it as an empowerment gap.

Particularly students from poverty...They have challenges day to day in just existing. Those students come away feeling very hopeless and helpless about their situation. They take that to the larger political and social arena, so that they don't experience themselves as being able to make a difference. So in fact, we can, I think, close the achievement gap by focusing in on this--what I would call this empowerment gap--and giving students a sense of their ability to make change.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Now that we have, on the horizon, an historic presidential election, do you find that this is an opportunity to create civic learning opportunities for students?

BERMAN: Absolutely. In either case, whoever gets elected, this work has to continue. It's vitally important that, whether it's McCain or Obama, we see civics as core to the curriculum and core to the mission of schools.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Do you ever encounter difficulties, given how toxic the political environment has been recently, in allowing students to understand the power of this moment rather than the perils of this moment?

BERMAN: I think part of the toxic nature of politics is that we've grown to accept that as the condition of politics. And it doesn't need to be. Hopefully, through the kinds of education that we provide, students can make more effective, more thoughtful decisions, and not just accept the--whether it's a tax or whether it's negative ads, they can move to a much more sophisticated judgment.

Photo from Jefferson County Public Schools