George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Reminding Our Leaders of the Civic Mission of Schools

Developing civic responsibility in students plays an important role in education.

October 28, 2011

According to a recent study, U.S. governors talk predominantly about one role for education in our society -- an economic one. In analyzing "state of the state" speeches from 2001 to 2008, governors defined education in economic terms 62 percent of the time.

Governors also appear to recognize the link between education and what the authors term "self-realization" (development of each individual's abilities, curiosity and creativity) -- they referenced that role for education in 25 percent of their comments.

But how often do governors reference the role of education in developing civic responsibility? In just seven percent of their comments. And keep in mind that the data used in this study run only through 2008 -- as recovery from the Great Recession has faltered over the past couple years, I suspect that the proportion of references to education as an economic tool has increased.

Considering that our country's founders viewed education as a cornerstone to our democracy and designed our government assuming an educated citizenry, and considering the current state of our democracy (with partisan politics resulting in policy gridlock), it is concerning to me that the civic mission of public schools is so neglected in political rhetoric. As these authors point out, there are a number of interrelated implications to this trend, including:

  • Governors pursue education policies and initiatives based on how they define the purpose of education
  • Non-economic educational goals will likely become (some would argue "remain") marginalized
  • "[T]he potential of perpetuating a citizenry committed to self above all, shrugging off responsibilities inherent in a free and pluralistic society" (which I take to mean, producing students with no sense of civic responsibility)
  • Given that politicians often speak of what is relevant to constituents, the comments reflect a lack of public commitment to preparing students for more than economic purposes

My main takeaway: By not discussing the role of schools in developing civic responsibility, politicians may be hindering their ability to do so.

The State of Civic Knowledge

These implications appear to be reflected in the state of civics in our society. A survey of high school social studies teachers last year found that 45 percent believe that the social studies curriculum at their school has been de-emphasized as a result of federal policy, with 70 percent saying that social studies classes are a lower priority because of pressure to show progress on state math and language arts tests.

These beliefs are reflected in scores on civics standardized tests. On the 2010 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) in Civics, neither eighth nor twelfth grade students made progress since 2006, though fourth grade students did. In total, just 27 percent of fourth graders, 22 percent of eighth graders and 24 percent of twelfth graders scored at the "proficient" level on the test, meaning that they possessed the skills to which all students should aspire. There were no significant changes in the number of students scoring at the "advanced" level - two percent of fourth graders, one percent of eighth graders and 4 percent of twelfth graders. One bright spot: Performance among Hispanic students improved at all grade levels, though achievement gaps remain among subgroups.

Some might argue that test scores reflecting civic knowledge are not of huge importance - what really matters is the civic engagement of our students as adults. But according to a recent report by the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, trends here are not encouraging either. Overall, civic engagement in our society is low. Some of their evidence: While the 2008 presidential elections featured the highest voter turnout in 40 years, nearly half of eligible Americans still did not vote. The number of people serving as an officer of a club or organization, working for a political party, serving on a committee, or attending a public meeting on town or school affairs has declined over the past few decades, as has the number of people writing letters to their local newspaper or voicing their views to Congress. And 72 percent of Americans report cutting back time in civic participation due in part to the economic and personal challenges facing families in the aftermath of the economic recession.

What Educators Can Do

Educators across the country recognize the civic mission of schools, and they are certainly working to change things. In Montana, for example, the state's 2009 Teacher of the Year Sally Broughton has her students identify a problem that can be solved by public policy - and then solve it. They research, meet with policymakers, debate, and more. Their work has resulted in a number of improvements to school and community life, including new public restrooms downtown, a school-wide bicycle helmet policy, and an early warning system, well-publicized evacuation route, reverse 911 and other measures to help ensure safety should a nearby dam fail.

In California, high school civics teacher Cheryl Cook-Kallio modeled civic engagement for her students, serving on the city council. At her school, students must complete three benchmark assignments related to civic education, including a senior "Quest," an individual project that involves exploring an interest, doing research, and then designing and completing a related service activity.

There are certainly many ways that any educator can incorporate civic education into lessons (for ideas, see Edutopia blogger Suzie Boss' latest post, Why Civic Education Needs a Boost). But in addition to what they can do in the classroom, educators can advocate for the civic mission of schools themselves, both in everyday conversations and by contacting elected leaders about it.

In that advocacy, they can even appeal, as the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools' report points out, to an economic argument. After all, civic learning contributes to the development of the 21st century skills that everyone from politicians to business leaders talk about as vital to the future of our economy, including the ability to understand and analyze presentations in a range of media and the ability to work cooperatively with others.

Already, across the nation, some students are receiving a great civic education. We must ensure that all students have access to one -- both for their sake, and for our country's.

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