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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Let's Bring Civic Education to the Front Burner

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.

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Andrew Ordover's picture

Student voices is an excellent civics program: http://www.student-voices.org/

I absolutely agree that civics is ignored or under-taught, and that our Founders considered education to be inextricably tied to the maintenance of a functioning democracy. But there's a piece missing from even this discussion. Civics education has often been poor in this country even when it's been attempted, because too often it's focused on facts and figures--the rules and procedures of how our government works--without enough emphasis on the underlying habits of mind required of its citizens. In fact, our citizenry needs much more education on critical thinking, and analysis and debate of argument, to prepare it for participation in its politics. Far too many of our voting-age citizens are incapable of weighting competing arguments and analyzing the facts that suppor those arguments, and allow their 21st century priests--the loudmouths on cable news or talk radio--to tell them what to believe. Or perhaps they're capable, and simply not willing. They listen only to those with whom they already agree, demonize those who argue against them, and shut their ears to the possibility that they might be in error. In the end, if we do not raise our children to question, to challenge, to assess, and to reach independent conclusions, then it won't really matter whether they know how a bill becomes a law, because they will already be utterly disenfranchised.

Sandra Wozniak's picture

The nonprofict TregoED has created a tool that teaches kids how to think, not what to think, so that they can practice civil discourse (something sorely needed during this pre-election season) and learn through role playing different perspectives on historical and current events. The SCAN tool is found at www.tregoed.org. Teachers set up lessons (or write their own)and send their students to a unique URL which uses a critical thinking strategy to guide their online "discussion." This web tool teaches them how to communicate and collaborate using emerging technologies, as they learn how to develop policies considering all points of view. A great engaging way to teach kids civics and social studies!

Shepherd Siegel's picture

I read your article with great interest. I find it alarming that the word 'democracy' rarely surfaces in the current national education reform conversation. So-called special interests need to articulate holistic visions the incorporate all the essentials. If we continue to have turf-fights for the student's school day we will never transcend. For example, 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; Preparation for 4-year baccalaureate; Career + Technical Education; Education of the Creative.

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