George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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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Jill's picture
Mikva Challenge

I agree that as teachers we need to not only teach civics and have our students engage in civic experiences, but we need to model it as well. Advocating for civic education is one way to do this. I know teachers feel particularly dis-empowered these days but that is even more reason to speak up and fight for the very reasons we became teachers. For me, it was to help empower my students with the skills, knowledge and attitudes to be powerful members of our society and democracy. That is why I advocate action civics programs and civic education in our schools. Civics is not just what we teach our students, it is what we do too!

Angela Dye's picture
Angela Dye
School Innovator and Social Change Agent

Anne, it is quite refreshing to read your post as I was recently questioning the silent treatment that our society gives to the civic responsibility of education. Dr. West (as reported by Dantley, 2005) says the work of schooling should be spiritual pragmatism where citizens are empowered and communities are transformed. You hit the nail on the head when you said, "civic learning contributes to the development of the 21st century skills".

My only challenge to your post is in your notion that the economic pursuit of education is a new phenomenon. While I understand that the study only focused on the recent time period of 2001-2008, Spring (2011) identifies the historical treatment of schools to promote an economic advantage at the national level. Charity schools (which were the first form of public schooling) were used "as a means for socializing children into the world of work" (Spring, 2011). The impact of this effort created a class distinction between the haves and have nots.

In promoting the value of civic development and getting others to appreciate the human treatment of teaching and learning, we must not distort the historical treatment of democracy where everyone was not able to participate in civic engagement. We cannot forget that some voices were silenced.

The historical context of public education in America should warn us of the dangers of limiting education to an economic endeavor. Yes, we need to maintain our competitive edge as a nation. But, we need to make sure all Americans are equipped to engage. This is what civic instruction is all about...empowering all people to engage in the full opportunities of economic prosperity, democracy, AND human civility.

Thank you for your post. I am encouraged.

Author of "Empowerment Starts Here: Seven Principles to Empowering Urban Youth"


Spring, J. (2011). The American school: A global context from the Puritans to the Obama era. 8th Ed.. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

Dantley, M. (2005). African American spirituality and Cornel West's notion of prophetic pragmatism: Restructuring educational leadership in American urban schools. Educational Administration Quarterly.

Angela Dye's picture
Angela Dye
School Innovator and Social Change Agent

"Civics is not just what we teach our students, it is what we do too!" (Jill Bass, 11/13/2011). Cannot say it better than that!! :)

Brock d'Avignon's picture
Brock d'Avignon
Real Client PBL EdTech Industrial Arts Social Sciences Teacher 7-12

Meaningful and Life-saving Project Based Learning with major CEOs, nationwide and national leaders is founded on George Lucas' Edutopian idea of presenting a problem to be solved, then all technology, mentors, money, and cooperation follows. PBL is now important to opinion leaders. My students have designed:
Central Asian TRAADE routes for prosperity, peace, and freedom with pipelines carrying water, oil, gas next to road and railways going north and south where none exists now.
Red Cross Robotic Search and Rescue Ambulances (SARA) vehicles for firefighters and DARPA Grand Challenge. Research contacts given to university students winning $2M prize.
Flood ending half-buried porthole pipelines carrying water elsewhere where needed.
Asteroid Detection Deflection Development (ADDD) solar system wide with banking collateral value to pay for it all at 6% discovery rights to title, 1/10,000th of dollar severe discount equals $1.9 Trillion in assets for California schools and colleges; 145T for US & A; more for other countries with telescopes; parcelization of 5 moons to every human with individual property title; and a Space Property-title and Asteroid Resources Company (STARCO).
New Island Creation Consortium (NICCO) pizzahedron truss structures, electro-deposition of sea mineral hulls, and Freedomaxium new country projects and open deep ocean fish-farming.
Identifying Moammar Ghaddafi's deep space rocket capability with nuclear batteries for space rock renavigation as WMD plus launch disguise, satcom interference, and satellite blinding alliances.
Resetting global economy to personally held space resources instead of oil, and achieving property title for all humans on Earth using Percentage As You Earn (PAYE) finance of houses and farms ending repossession vulnerability.
Achieving free market curative and preventative care for all as an outcome of a new charging method of percentage-of-income medical finansurance. Adding Quality Immortality (QI) percentage of income PAYEments while students decide to crack the supergene that controls aging.
Historical examples of income contingent business models in immigration of redemptioners of debt replacing indentured servitude and slavery; privateers; mountain men; old country doctors reckoning of percentages of income to take care of all; rePAYEment of college tuition with the outcome of equal opportunity to attend college while achieving the Separation of Higher Education and State in 11 years. Non-property tax based revenue cycle replacement with anywhere on the globe rePAYEment from college students to either taxpayers or Human Investors in a Career Futures Exchange.
Leg protection motorcycles.
Earthquake Preparedness-box Towers (EPT) on Wheels for all school homerooms including water bottles, MREs, rubble tools, warmth and personalized medical supplies; revision of disaster plans at schools to meet law, insurance, and civil defense shelter needs with Red Cross and sponsors, not taxes.
Creation of franchise images for Flying Saucer Pizza and Yellow Submarine Sandwich Galleys as examples of Communications English for local businesses.
Historical character relationships for screenplays The Star Spangled Banner and The Bear Flag Revolt.
Not bad for 7-12th graders some people think can only be janitors for some pocket change. Education should give something back to the businesses, community, and civic leaders that support it. Thank you George, would you like to help schools and students with licensing dealmakers and lawyers like universities have to reward intellectual achievement via property rights to all involved? Like to set up a CAFEX with me? Would you like to make a few movies about all the PBL and CBL teachers and students you've collected best examples of over the last few years? Ready when you are! Brock d'Avignon 831-512-6572

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