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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The importance of education cannot be overstated. Without a good education, one cannot get a good job, earn a good living, and provide for oneself and one's family. Education is the key to individual prosperity.

And education is important to our economy. We have been hearing a lot recently about concerns that our education system is falling behind, particularly in math and science, hindering our competitiveness in the global market. The message is clear: If we don't improve our educational system, our economy will fall apart (again).

But we have been hearing a lot less about the civic mission of our schools -- and the importance of education for our democracy. Yet as Rick Hess pointed out a few weeks ago:

From the dawn of the Western tradition, dating back to Plato, Aristotle, and their contemporaries, education has been regarded as essential to the formation of good citizens and the cultivation of a proper attachment to the state. For America's founders such as Benjamin Rush, Noah Webster, and Thomas Jefferson, one of the main functions of schools was producing democratic citizens.

I am reminded of our civic mission as the nation approaches a midterm election in the midst of an economic crisis. Voters will soon make difficult decisions on a number of issues that will shape at least the next two years in American politics.

The Statistics

But I have concerns about the state of civics education in America. The National Assessment of Student Progress (NAEP) test in civics found that about two out of every three students at grades 4 (73 percent), 8 (70 percent) and 12 (66 percent) have at least a basic knowledge of civics. But when you look at proficiency, the situation seems grim: just about 24 percent of students are considered proficient (24 percent of fourth graders, 22 percent of eighth graders, and 27 percent of twelfth graders). These students will become voters who have to make important decisions every election -- but only about 24 percent have a proficient understanding of civics? It's a bit scary.

Combine NAEP data with a recent American Enterprise Institute (AEI) study on what social studies teachers think and do. Findings I found particularly interesting: 83 percent of these teachers say it is absolutely essential for high schools to teach students "to identify the protections guaranteed by the Bill of Rights." Just 64 percent deem it absolutely essential for high schools to teach students "to understand such concepts as federalism, separation of powers, and checks and balances." And consider how that plays out in student knowledge -- NAEP found that only 5 percent of twelfth graders could explain checks on the president's power.

This lack of civics knowledge could have dire consequences. Our nation is designed for the participation of the people. If our citizens don't understand how it works, how can we make the right decisions? We have to do better in teaching our children about our nation and its government.

In the Classroom

While great civics education is not as systemic as it should be, there are great teachers all over the country doing innovative work to ensure students will be able to fulfill their civic duties. Consider, for example, Montana's 2009 Teacher of the Year, Sally Broughton. Her students gain a thorough knowledge of how the government works by identifying a problem that can be solved by public policy and then solving it.

These aren't "theoretical" projects. Her students speak to policymakers, and they improve life in their school and community. The results of their work include new public restrooms downtown and a school-wide bicycle helmet policy. Then there is my personal favorite. Living in prime earthquake country, her students investigated the ways a nearby dam could fail. They met with county officials to discuss ways to solve the problem and presented a final plan to the county commissioners. The county got a state grant, with students testifying at the state hearing, to initiate some of the changes the students had suggested. And the county later got a grant from Homeland Security to implement all the measures students had recommended, including an early warning system, a well-publicized evacuation route, and a reverse 911.

Through such activities, I am sure Sally Broughton's students learned how their government works. And I am sure that there are many others like her. Hopefully one day all children will have such excellent, project-based learning civics education.

Without imparting on our students a sense of their civic duties, and the knowledge required to carry them out, I worry that all our education reform efforts will be for naught. Our country cannot thrive if its citizens do not know how to maintain it.

Comments (26)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Ted McConnell's picture

Bravo and thank you Anne, a superbly written piece on why we must work to restore the historic civic mission of our schools. The Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools www.civicmissionofschools.org is a coalition of over 60 leading organizations dedicated to improving civic learning for all students. On behalf of the CMS Coalition, thank you for highlighting this important issue. Sally Broughton is an example of the many dedicated front line teachers who do their best to ensure all students know their rights and responsibilities as citizens; we need policies that support teachers in this vital role.

Lisa Bardwell's picture

Just wanted to herald the work of teachers like Sally who commit to giving young people a real world experience in civics. At Earth Force (www.earthforce.org), our focus is on engaging young people in working together to address issues in their community by changing policy or practice. We are honored to be part of a group that has started talking about the importance of what we are calling "action civics" as critical to engaging young people in democratic processes.

Jenna McWilliams's picture
Jenna McWilliams
Learning Sciences Program, Indiana University

I'm not all that concerned to learn that students don't possess "a proficient understanding of civics"--in part because the questions on the test embody what in my view is an outdated approach to civics.

Yes, our nation's 12th-graders are or will soon be of legal voting age--but if contemporary politics have taught us anything, it's that voting alone, for many intents and purposes, is really a minor piece of civic participation. (I say this as a faithful voting citizen.) Any understanding of today's version of civic engagement must account for the resistance young people make, individually or in groups, to corporate influences in the online communities they populate; the wielding of our influence on what sorts of media content we get delivered, and when, and how, and for how long, and why; the power of small groups of people to influence how their local communities will be used and viewed; and the role of individuals or groups of people to contribute to larger knowledge-building projects (like, but not exclusive to, Wikipedia). In a world where young people are able to help spread knowledge and participate in grown-up communities that take their contributions seriously, why would voting--choosing between two candidates, and having the tiniest of influence on which candidate will take office (to make laws that have little bearing on the everyday)--hold any attraction?

What's the point of asking students if they know what issues matter most to U.S.-Japanese relations? Why not ask instead if they can quickly and easily ACCESS credible information in response to this question? Why not see if young people are engaged with issues that matter to them, and then adjust our definition of 'civics' accordingly?

Veronica Fern's picture

The San Francisco Education Fund's Peer Resources Program addresses the issue of civic responsbility for the most high-need students. Students take Peer Resources classes taught by credentialed teachers and plan and implement year-long "make a change" projects that positively impact the school community. Students learn the skills and knowledge that are necessary for advocacy, conflict resolution, building coalitions, and implmenting a campaign. Along the way they learn how to present, manage projects, and how to make the best use of technology to achieve their goals. This program has been operating successfully in the SFUSD for 31 years, positively impacting thousands of San Francisco youth---keeping them in school, getting them to college, and inspiring them to be engaged citizens.

Beth Van Meeteren's picture

The habits of mind necessary for a thriving democracy should begin early. Instead of just "learning about" social studies (if they're lucky in this NCLB atmosphere where reading rules in the primary grades) students should be "living" social studies standards in democratic classrooms beginning in PreK. Every early childhood classroom should be an educational environment where knowledgeable teachers facilitate a classroom community that collaborates to create and refine the rules they live by, and whose members have choice in areas of study within parameters allowing them to become autonomous learners and active citizens of their classroom. Scripted teaching has no place in a democratic society.

Mrs. J's picture
Mrs. J
Special Educator, English Language Development, Elementary, Pre0-school T.

Perhaps the point is that we live in a Republic.

Ron's picture
Associate Professor of Education, Penn State Abington

Perhaps I am overestimating the impact of cable news, but based on its popularity, I have begun to wonder how many parents really want their children to become critical thinkers? How many parents would be pleased if their kids questioned them regarding their politics and social biases?

Beth Van Meeteren's picture

I apologize. They are used as synonyms in the general population and I was still in this mode as I had been having conversations about self-regulation with parents. I understand we live in a Republic.

Mrs. J's picture
Mrs. J
Special Educator, English Language Development, Elementary, Pre0-school T.

Beth, no need to apologize. I missed the part about self-regulation with parents that you posted earlier. I thought Republic meant that the states had jurisdiction in each state. So, I do think that is different that plural votes (democracy.) My fifth grade students loved watching the news and the debates and having discourse with their parents AND
grandparents. I have to admit, not all of them did this. However, the more some talked about politics in class, the more others went home and started discussions. This will be their country soon. I want them to be ready. We will be retired and who knows if we will have a retirement income.

lapss321's picture

I've proposed a high school diploma earned by the student constructing their own schedules where each of the four areas account for at least 15% of their four-year plan and no more than 35% of it: Citizenship in a Democracy; China cell phone wholesale Preparation for 4-year baccalaureate; Career + Technical Education; Education of the Creative.

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