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February 27, 2004
The most interesting reading on this blog today are the comments and
the link that others have contributed in response to my post on Howard
Dean. (See yesterday.) On a similar topic: I spoke this morning to the
National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) conference. I talked
about the importance of civic education and the main threats to it,
hoping to recruit some Secretaries of State as allies. They are, after
all, responsible for the election system in its broadest sense; and
civic education makes people into voters. Then a bunch of colleagues
and I held a conference call to discuss how we can fight to retain the
NAEP civics assessment. (See February
6th's post.) I'm quoted in a Gannet News Service story:
"Young voter turnout did jump initially up fourfold in Iowa though
it has leveled off as it appeared the Democratic nomination had been
settled. 'Theres no place where the turnout was down,' said Peter Levine,
deputy director of a Maryland center that studies young voters. 'It
probably bodes pretty well for the general election.'" And now I'm off
to talk by speaker phone to a class of University of Wisconsin students
about why youth don't vote.
February 6, 2004
The NAEP, often called the "Nation's Report Card," is a voluntary,
federally-funded assessment of students' progress in a field. Those
who support the Civic
Mission of Schools agenda favor a big expansion of the NAEP Civics
Assessment. We want the Civics NAEP to be given every three years with
separate representative samples in as many states as possible. We have
argued that this is an important way to hold states--but not individual
kids--accountable for civic outcomes. Furthermore, we believe that the
NAEP civics assessment is a good instrument.
February 4, 2004
I'm quoted in an article about how to manage controversial issues in
elementary and secondary classrooms: see "Hot-Button
Handling" from District Administrator Magazine. I make a
couple of points in the article, but this is the one that I consider
most important: "There is no question that there are horror stories
about partisan teachers, racist teachers, teachers [who] give extra
points for bringing in certain campaign signs. Those are disciplinary
issues and should not be allowed to happen," Levine says. "But do we
throw the baby out with the bath water?''
I think we need to cut administrators some slack on those relatively
rare occasions when teachers try to indoctrinate kids politically. If
we punish administrators in such cases, they get very nervous and will
discourage all political discussion in schools. And then kids can't
learn about issues.
February 3, 2004
I'm in Princeton, NJ, staying for 24 hours at the headquarters of the
ETS, the people who bring you the SAT and your other favorite standardized
tests. I'm here with a group of civic education advocates, trying to
learn more about testing. A system of high-stakes testing may be good
or bad for education in general (I'm genuinely unsure about that). For
civic education, it poses three problems:
1) Civic and political knowledge is usually not tested, at least not
with high-stakes exams. What isn't tested, isn't taught. But even enthusiastic
proponents of standards and accountability are leery about piling a
civics exam on top of all the other tests. There is thus a serious danger
that we will lose civics from the curriculum.
2) Civic knowledge, while important, isn't all we care about. We also
want students to develop civic attitudes, values, habits, skills, and
behaviors. Yet we don't know how to test these things.
3) A good approach to civic education is to involve students, teachers,
staff, parents, and community-members in the governance of schools.
But to the extent that important policy issues are determined by standards
and tests, there are fewer important decisions to be made locally.
Nevertheless, there may be ways to infuse some civic content into the
existing system, and that's what I'm at ETS to explore.
January 9, 2004
I met this morning with Rachel Tompkins, president of The
Rural School and Community Trust. I was persuaded that civic education
is exceptionally important in rural schools. First of all, rural areas
face serious economic and social problems because they are devalued--young
people feel that they have to move to big cities to succeed. Developing
a positive understanding of community (through research and activism)
is part of civic education, and it could reduce the "brain drain." Second,
many rural educators believe that rural schools are deprived of their
fair share of state education funding. If we assume (for the sake of
argument) that this is correct, then rural students can do themselves
good and learn about civics by advocating for more funding. Third, it
is a general truth that schools work best when they are supported by
adult citizens who participate in a rich civic life, with lots of meetings,
networks, and organizations. In rural areas, schools provide an essential
mechanism for building such networks, and students can play important
roles. Many of these factors also apply in urban schools, but we tend
to forget about the rural sector. As Rachel points out in this
interview, 14 percent of students live in areas with populations
of 2,500 of smaller, and 98 percent of the nation's poorest counties
Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2003
I spoke yesterday at the Learn & Serve America conference, which convenes
people who run federally-funded community-service programs in schools.
I talked about the Civic
Mission of Schools report, which my organization and Carnegie Corporation
of New York published earlier this year. One person in the audience
said that he had read the first sentence to colleagues back at his home
college, and they interpreted it as ridiculously and offensively conservative.
Neither the questioner nor I had the report with us, so we argued about
exactly what it says. In fact, it begins as follows:
"For more than 250 years, Americans have shared a vision of a
democracy in which all citizens understand, appreciate, and engage actively
in civic and political life. In recent decades, however, increasing
numbers of Americans have disengaged from civic and political institutions
such as voluntary associations, religious congregations, community-based
organizations, and political and electoral activities such as voting
and being informed about public issues."
I didn't write this language, but I like it and would resist seeing
it as conservative. I do think that there has been strong ideal of equality
and democratic participation in America since its founding. (Reality
has been a different matter, but ideals are important.) Moreover, the
last few decades have witnessed substantial and troubling declines,
especially a one-third drop in youth voting and a four-fifths drop in
young people's expressed interest in news. Incidentally, these trends
are of greater concern to liberals than to conservatives, because they
result in a smaller and older electorate. What's more, one reason for
these trends is the demise of traditional mobilizing institutions, especially
unions. If there's nostalgia in the report, it's for the activist 1960s,
not for 1950 or 1850.
Friday, Nov. 7
Salt Lake City: I gave the keynote luncheon address today at the International
Service-Learning Research Conference. I argued that we need research
that tests whether service-learning (i.e., combinations of community
service with academic study) works as well or better than competing
approaches to civic education. The best way to prove causality is an
experiment in which students are randomly assigned to the "treatment"
(here, service-learning) or to a control group, and then the two groups
are compared. That's the "gold standard," although there are
ways to approximate random selection if it proves to be impossible.
There has never been anything like a random experiment to test whether
(or how well) service-learning works as civic education.
Several people who spoke from the floor expressed the views that (a)
research will never settle any debates in education, because the results
are always murky and contested; and (b) policymakers won't listen to
research, no matter how strong it may seem. I said that for us, research
is necessary but not sufficient. I realize that scholarly papers don't
just jump off the shelf and pass legislation; we also need political
organization. The service-learning movement is organizing better, as
shown by the robust defense of Americorps this fall. But research is
necessary because we lack a large or wealthy constituency, so policymakers
don't have to listen to us. Fortunately, there are some decision-makers
in government, higher education, and philanthropy who genuinely want
to achieve the best outcomes, and they would support service-learning
if it really seemed to work. At present, they have reason to
Friday, Oct. 31
I was in New York City today, trying to help raise foundation money
for a campaign to implement the recommendations of the Civic
Mission of Schools report. (The last sentence contains
far too many prepositions, but I'm too tired to fix it.) We are proposing
that coalitions in several states would advocate policies to promote
civic education. A multi-state advocacy campaign will cost a lot of
money, but after today, I'm cautiously optimistic that we will be able
to raise the necessary funds.
Wednesday, Oct. 29
Colorado Springs, CO: I'm at a conference of developmental
psychologists, talking about service-learning. To repeat a
definition used below, "service-learning" is some combination
of community service with academic work on the same subject. Almost
half of American high schools claim to use this approach. Most of the
important debates about service-learning are really about values: Do
we want to produce caring citizens who are likely to volunteer and provide
face-to-face services? Do we want to produce citizens who are aware
of social problems such as homelessness and hunger and may later act
politically? What kinds of social and political knowledge do we want
to foster? And so on.
The papers by the developmental psychologists were highly "normative":
full of moral claims. I was a little afraid that they would want to
present these claims as scientific, as based on technical expertise.
In my view, that would be illegitimate. But the psychologists I talked
to emphasized that their normative positions do not follow from their
research. Rather, developmentalists enter the field motivated by a set
of moral concerns, which draw their attention to certain facts about
the way children grow. In particular, they tend to believe in the intrinisic
value of activities that are normal at each stage in development. Thus
they don't only see service-learning as an "intervention"
that may produce discrete outcomes much later in life. Service-learning
is rather something that people do for partly intrinsic reasons. This
approach raises a researchable, empirical question: is service-learning
deeply satisfying and rewarding for participants while they are doing
I find the moral motivations of developmental pyschologists (at least
the ones I have met here) very attractive.
Tuesday, Oct. 28
I'm in the air, en route to Colorado Springs for a conference on service-learning
and cognitive science. I'll explain what that means once I've participating
in some sessions and understand the topic better.
Yesterday, I spoke at a conference sponsored by the Office of Safe
and Drug-Free Schools within the US Department of Education. This is
the office that has responsibility for civic education, and the assignment
may be a bureaucratic accident. But it does raise the question: Is there
a form of civic education that can help makes schools safer? Perhaps
a standard view is that "good citizens" are those who don't
abuse drugs or act violently; thus "civic education" means
reducing such antisocial personal behavior. I would like to endorse
an alternative position advanced by Dr. Joel Westheimer at yesterday's
conference. Joel argues that we'll only make schools safer by helping
to create active, critical, participatory democratic citizens who strive
for justice. "Justice-oriented" civic education will reduce
crime because (a) teaching kids to be civic activists may steer some
away from negative roles; and (b) if there is a critical mass of active
citizens in a school, they may be able to address immediate causes of
crime, such as a lack of after-school activities.
Clearly, creating "justice-oriented citizens" would be good
even if it didn't make schools safer. Whether there is a link between
the best forms of civic education and safe schools is an empirical question.
I don't know whether it has been answered. But it is plausible to imagine
that youth civic engagement would reduce crime.
Brad Rourke writes:
I was intrigued by your discussion of Dr. Joel Westheimer's argument
that creating "justice-oriented" citizens will have beneficial
effects on schools.
But, I am discomfitted by half of his argument. I would counter that
creating citizens -- in a normative ense of the word -- with just
about any "orientation" will have beneficial effects on
schools. It's another way of saying that as we improve a school's
surrounding community, the school itself and the students therein
will benefit. As will all institutions that require a relationship
with citizens to operate effectively.
Why, I would go on to ask, do the activists need to be "justice"
oriented? I assume that the use of justice here is not in terms of
law enforcement but rather "social justice." In other words,
a very particular sort of political orientation. And so, one might
worry that what is truly being said is: "If more people were
to engage in my kind of activism, then schools would be a better place."
But, why not other kinds of orientations and activism? I could imagine
that if there were a concerted attempt to create more "faith-oriented"
citizens in a commiunity that the school would benefit. I don't mean
to get silly with the riposte, but you see what I mean.
Joel Wertheimer replies:
One the one hand, I am inclined to agree with Brad Rourke that
the broader a notion of "active" citizenship, the better.
After all, isn't getting kids involved a good thing in and of itself?
On the other hand (I always like to keep two hands around just for
these kind of dilemmas), his comments imply a kind of value-neutrality
to active citizenship that, left unchecked, could be troublesome.
It's true, when I talk about "justice-oriented" citizenship,
I mean an orientation to social justice, but since those words are
fairly meaningless these days, let me be clear: by justice-oriented
citizenship I mean a conception of the democratic citizen as one who
works with others to help improve society; it is a conception consistent
with Vincent Harding's vision of a democracy that involves constantly
"participating in the creation of something new and better than
what had existed previously." This requires the ability to analyze
root causes of troubles in society. So I see two dilemmas here.
First, when it comes to education for a democratic society,
I don't believe all forms of activism are equal no matter the ideological
orientation. Some forms of activism, in fact, are downright antithetical
to the idea of democracy. Indeed, faith-based civic education (as
Mr. Rourke suggests is one possible orientation) has the potential
to be one such form. I am all for religious organizations encouraging
members to participate in community affairs, but what happens when
the beliefs of that organization go against the free exchange of ideas
that are essential to democracy? The multitude of fundamentalist groups
that organize to keep all sorts of books out of school libraries are
active--no one could argue that they are not--but the ends to which
they are organizing run counter to the democratic ideal of free exchange
Second, too often when educators have focused on merely "being
active" and on avoiding particular ideologies by remaining "neutral"
regardless of the ideological orientation of that activism, they have
instead paved the way for a kind of education that serves the interests
of--for lack of a better way to phrase it--those with power. In short,
because the media and the broader culture disproportionately reflect
particular interests and perspectives and obscure others, there is
no level playing field on which students can engage controversial
issues. Educators must therefore help students consider the interests
and power relations embedded in various perspectives--a formidable
task, and one associated with (social) justice-oriented civic education.
It is this constant analysis and re-analysis of power relations that,
I believe, is the engine of progress in democratic societies.
Helping students learn to think about and pursue social change
does not, however, require that they be taught to adopt particular
perspectives on particular policy issues, only that they
learn how to engage these issues critically.
In sum, I agree with Mr. Rourke that having students be active
is, generally speaking, a good thing. But I don't think any and
all orientations will have beneficial effects on schools. There
are "activist" orientations that, in my mind, are sure to
have deleterious effects on democracy: for example, a school-based
civic education program that teaches students that the only legitimate
explanation for poverty is that mom and dad are not working hard enough
sends a message to students that deep analysis of social problems
is unnecessary and counterproductive and that compassion may be misguided.
It sends the message that the best we can do for democracy is stand
back and let the free market work its magic. I think we can do better.
I think democracy depends on it.
Tuesday, Oct. 7
Today was a day for thinking about civic education
from several different angles. I participated in a Steering Committee
meeting of the National Alliance for
Civic Education; reviewed research grant proposals submitted to
CIRCLE (on aspects of youth
civic engagement); and worked on my own application to the National
Endowment for the Humanities. This proposal is due next week, so I'm
focusing a lot of my on budgetary and other practical details. (My colleagues
and I are applying to replicate our high school students' unusual oral
history project in several sites, including Jackson, Mississippi
and Miami, Florida. The proposed topic is segregation and desegregation
in local school districts, during the period 1954-2004. Students will
interview surviving witnesses, think of several alternative strategies
that could have been adopted in 1954, and create interactive websites
to help community members think about what should have been done.
That's not an easy question, since each strategy would involve different
risks and tradeoffs.)
Coincidentally, I was recently asked to write an article on the following
topic: "Civic involvement and democracy in the scholarly communication
commons." I proposed this tentative abstract, inspired by the history
There are many projects underway that help non-scholars to create
sophisticated intellectual products for free dissemination on the
Web. Some of these projects enlist disadvantaged adolescents, a group
that's particularly distant from traditional, professional researchers.
So far, there are neither aggregate poll data nor experimental results
that would help us to measure the effects of such projects on the
participants or their target audiences. However, those of us who are
working in this area hope for several benefits. Participants should
gain civic skills and values as a result of creating public goods.
They should also gain academic and technical skills and interest in
attending college. They should develop an understanding of the digital
commons and thereby enlarge the political constituency for policies
that protect the commons. Meanwhile, communities should gain from
the materials generated by diverse new groups; and powerful research
universities should benefit from new opportunities to collaborate
with students in their vicinity. As a result, it should be possible
to persuade universities to use some of their research resources for
projects that would increase youth civic engagement.
Thursday, Oct. 2
I'm at the bucolic Airlie House retreat center in Northern Virginia,
with a bunch of people who are trying to organize a lobbying/advocacy
campaign to implement the recommendations of the Civic
Mission of Schools report. My organization, CIRCLE, doesn't do advocacy.
We are a research center with a commitment to intellectual independence
and to supporting a diversity of views. However, we didn't want to issue
a report and then see it sit on a shelf somewhere. Thus we helped to
convene a group of practitioners who might organize themselves for
advocacy. I believe they are making good progress.
After dinner, we heard from Leslie Harris,
a public interest lawyer and brilliant organizer of advocacy coalitions,
including the movement to pass the "E-Rate" provision (which
pays to wire schools and libraries). I had suggested that she speak
to the group of civic educators, because several years ago I observed
her skillful work in organizing a coalition of media reform organizations.
This coalition later mobilized mass opposition to the FCC's media consolidation
regulations. Tonight, she challenged leaders in civic education to develop
"one big idea" that can motivate a coherent campaign. She
also challenged the field the include youth in the development of its
Tuesday, Sept. 23
Some people who talk or write about civic education insist that the
United States has the very best democracy (or society) in the
world. In my opinion, the US is one of about a few dozen polities
that stand head-and-shoulders above the rest (due to good luck as well
as wise ancestors). I think it's a goal of civic education to help students
understand how much more fortunate they are compared to people who live
in tyrannies or anarchy. Also, I feel loyalty and gratitude toward the
United States and not toward any other nation, and I think this is a
good attitude for Americans to hold. However, it's far from clear to
me that our polity is the single best in the world. We have low voter
participation; our crime and incarceration rates are amazingly high;
and we live shorter lives with more disease, compared to people in some
of the northern European nations. Nor do we compare favorably with these
countries if one thinks about the long term. Sweden, for example, has
been stable and at peace for 200 years, progressing steadily toward
liberty and democracy. These other democratic states are all to our
left politically. Thus I wonder whether some people want to teach students
that the United States is the best society in order to head
off discussions about whether we should move somewhat leftward.
Monday, Sept. 29
The most passionately debated question in civic education is how
to present the overall story of American history in schools.
Is it a march toward freedom and democracy, a blood-soaked tale of oppression,
or something in between? I can see three ways to address this question:
1. By trying to tell the truth. Some historical statements
are verifiable (or falsifiable); and we should only tell students the
ones that aren't false. However, the issue here is not whether a given
fact is true; it's which facts we ought to mention and emphasize.
History is a vast grab-bag (as Robert Weibe once said, in my hearing);
and one can choose which items to pull out. As for grand assessments
of the overall meaning of American history: they aren't precise enough
to be either true or false.
2. By conducting a normative (moral) debate. How to present
American history is hotly debated because each approach seems to cohere
best with a different moral/ideological worldview. Modern conservatives
want to emphasize the degree to which our founding institutions have
served us well; some liberals want to stress the March of Progress;
and many modern leftists want to focus on violence, exclusion, and resistance.
There is nothing wrong with having this debate. However, "is"
never implies "ought." One could, for example, take a very
dark view of the American past and still believe that students should
love their country and its founding documents. Many complex combinations
of facts and values are possible.
More importantly, "ought" never implies "is." It
is intellectually dishonest to adopt a normative position and then try
to teach students a set of historical facts that support that ideology,
presented as the history of the United States. If I wanted
to help students think about moral and ideological positions, I wouldn't
proceed by trying to present a brief version of American history to
them. I would teach them explicitly about conflicting values and methods
of normative argument.
3. By predicting the effects of each version of history on students'
attitudes and beliefs. Many ideologists in this debate assume that
particular versions of history will have particular consequences for
students' psychological development. For instance, a "triumphalist"
narrative will create patriots—or will alienate students, especially
minorities. An emphasis on exclusion and oppression will create social
activists—or will breed despair.
There is not nearly enough research on this (empirical) topic. William
Damon of Stanford argues that young people must develop a positive view
of their nation before they can care enough about it to become engaged
critics. This theory rings true in my own life. I was a jingoistic patriot
at 10, only to become a critical activist by 20. However, I'm not sure
that trying to impart a strongly positive view of the Founders would
work as well with young people of color as it did with me. In any case,
I would love to see more research this field, using as many relevant
methodologies as possible.
Tuesday, Sept. 16
I spoke this morning at the 50th anniversary of the National
Conference on Citizenship. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) spoke
later, as did John Bridgeland, Executive Director of USA Freedom Corps
and advisor to President Bush. After Mr. Bridgeland spoke, someone in
the audience rose to say that he had just seen a car blatantly stolen
outside the hotel, and no one (except himself) had done anything to
try to stop it. His implication: We need to teach young people good
values, just like in the good old days. The standard politician would
take the bait and say that morals have declined, it's a terrible thing,
but this administration is committed to character education.
John Bridgeland, however, is a thoughtful and sophisticated
guy, and he immediately recalled the game-theoretical explanation of
cases like this. For each person who witnesses the crime, the worst
outcome is that no one does anything to stop it. But the second-worst
outcome for each person is that he or she is the one who intervenes.
Chart the situation on a game-theorist's grid, and you'll see that no
one is likely to do anything. Mr. Bridgeland revealed that he was thinking
about game theory when he called the situation outside the hotel a "chicken
game." I found it appealing that he gave an answer that was interesting,
probably true, and that didn't score him any political points. (By the
way, chicken games offer the most useful advice ever generated by game
theory. If you need immediate assistance, don't shout "help,"
to a crowd. Pick an individual arbitrarily and say, "You,
please help me.")
Friday, Sept. 12
Yesterday, I reported on the progress of HR
1078, the bill written by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) that would
fund summer programs for civics teachers. Gun
Owners of America opposes the bill on the amazing grounds
that it is "anti-gun." They are asking their members
to send the following form letter to Congress:
Dear Representative ________________,
If H.R. 1078 is enacted, educators will be encouraged to teach that
I do not have an individual right to keep and bear arms. It will establish
Presidential Academies on teaching civics and history which will use
anti-gun texts like We the People -- the textbook that conforms
to the federal guidelines on teaching civics and history.
This book encourages students to start questioning the wisdom
of the Second Amendment, asking the student whether the right to keep
and bear arms is still as "important today" as it was in
the eighteenth century and to decide what "limitations"
should be placed on the right. This kind of discussion treats the
Second Amendment as though it were not protecting a God-given, individual
But the individual rights view is exactly what our Founders intended
and what the American public still believes today. An ABC News Poll
in 2002 found that almost three-fourths of all Americans believe that
the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the rights
of "individuals" to own guns.
We already have too much Federal involvement in education, and the
results have not been good. As control over education becomes more
and more federalized, it seems that the ideas which children are learning
become more and more radical. Please vote against H.R. 1078, a bill
which is decidedly anti-gun.
The We the People
curriculum and textbook are widely supported by conservatives (as
well as liberals) because they provide rigorous and balanced materials
on American institutions. This letter reflects a fear of open and balanced
discussion that should be deeply embarrassing to all proponents of the
Second Amendment and of freedom. I would hope that some would come to
the defense of We the People.
Maple River Education Coalition says that HR 1078 "is in clear
violation of the 10th amendment to the U.S. Constitution." (This
is a bill, remember, that provides very modest federal support for voluntary
summer classes for teachers. It's also a bill that invites students
to read and debate the 10th Amendment, which might cause some to gain
appreciation for states' rights.)
Thursday, Sept. 11
Some time ago, the Senate passed The American History and Civics
Education Act of 2003, which I've summarized here.
Identical legislation has now been introduced in the House as H.R. 1078.
The House leadership apparently regards this legislation as well-intentioned,
bipartisan, Mom-and-apple-pie stuff, and they would like to get it out
of the House as quickly as possible. They don't want to take time for
hearings and amendments, because they face battles over appropriations,
Iraq, and health care this fall. They intend to put the bill on the
"Suspension Calendar," which permits no amendments and requires a 2/3
vote to pass (thus requiring Democratic support).
Unfortunately, many people in the civic education business believe
that the bill requires changes. Some think that it would do very little
practical good, that it is not an efficient use of federal resources,
and that it is best seen as a vehicle for more ambitious (but still
bipartisan) civics legislation. There is also a possibility that it
would be funded at the expense of other history programs in the National
Endownment for the Humanities. Thus it would clearly be a good idea
to hold hearings and allow amendments in the House. In order to pass
the bill without changes, the leadership will need broad Democratic
support to waive procedural rules. I might support the bill if forced
to vote up or down on it, but I do not think it is a good idea to bypass
Friday, August 29
Here are some thoughts prompted by Where
Did Social Studies Go Wrong?, a new report from the Thomas B. Fordham
Foundation (edited by James Leming, Lucien Ellington and Kathleen Porter
and with an introduction by Chester E. Finn, Jr.). This is a conservative
alternative to The Civic
Mission of Schools, the joint CIRCLE/Carnegie Corporation report
on social studies and civic education released earlier this year.
The rhetoric of the Fordham Foundation report is angry. Chester Finn
says that “the lunatics have taken over the asylum”; that
the response of the “education establishment” to Sept. 11
was “despicable”; that the “keys of Rome are being
turned over to the Goths and Huns.” However, I think it’s
worth looking beyond these fighting words to the content of the report,
which differs interestingly (but not completely) from the content of
The Civic Mission of Schools.
The Civic Mission of Schools identifies a set of facts, behaviors,
and attitudes that students should obtain by 12th grade. It then lists
six approaches that seem to produce those outcomes. The main evidence
consists of aggregate statistics comparing students who have experienced
the recommended approaches with those who have not. Only one of the
approaches is formal instruction in history, government, and civics.
The Civic Mission does not go into great detail about what
content should be taught in social studies classes, although it does
stress the importance of factual knowledge and the need to connect it
to concrete actions. The Report calls for more research on pedagogy
In contrast, Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong? is almost
entirely concerned with what teachers are telling students in formal
history and government classes. Young people are repeatedly described
as woefully ignorant, and the blame is ascribed to pedagogical methods
and content selection in formal classes.
The authors focus on content and pedagogy for two reasons. First,
they believe that what teachers say matters a great deal. Mark C. Schug
contributes a chapter endorsing “teacher-centered instruction”
as the most effective pedagogy. Perhaps the authors do not think that
the other approaches have much effect at all. James S. Lemming argues
that discussion of controversial issues is developmentally inappropriate
for k-12 students, which is why many do not participate and those who
do talk don’t really deliberate (p. 138). Several contributors
disparage service-learning. There is no mention whatsoever of extracurricular
activities or student participation in school governance.
Secondly, the authors’ emphasize content and pedagogy because
of their extreme dismay at some of the things that they believe students
are being told in formal classes. “Why is social studies in such
deep trouble? The contributors believe one reason is the dominant belief
systems of the social studies education professoriate who train future
teachers. [Thus] in this book we exclusively focus upon, to use E.D.
Hirsch’s phrase, the ‘thought world’ of social studies
leaders’” (pp. i-ii). In practice, this means that the authors
quote textbooks on pedagogy; textbooks used in k-12 classes; and statements
of official groups such as the NEA, NCATE, and NCSS. These quotations
are supposed to prove that education professors and other experts favor
relativism, skepticism about all forms of truth, anti-Americanism, and
other objectionable doctrines. Education schools turn out teachers with
little knowledge and poor values; teachers impart what they
were told to their students; and students score badly on tests such
as the NAEP Civics Assessment. “Garbage In, Garbage Out”
is the title of chapter 6 and the theme of the whole volume.
Empirically, there are two weaknesses to this argument. First, I am
not at all convinced that the depiction of education experts (through
selective quotations) is fair or complete. For instance, no author mentions
Magruder’s American Government, which claims an outright
majority of the high school market. Unlike the textbooks that the authors
do quote, Magruder’s is quite congenial to their views,
so it would rhetorically inconvenient to mention it.
An example of pretty tendentious criticism is Jonathan Burack’s
reading of The La Pietra Report (by Thomas Bender and other
historians). He quotes a passage about the dangers of nationalism that
he calls “unobjectionable” in itself (p. 46). But, he says,
“the problems the La Pietra project claims to address
do not appear to be all that significant. This suggests that other agendas
may be at work. On the matter of American exceptionalism, for instance,
is the aim to temper uncritical pro-American bias, or is it to instill
indifference to any patriotic appeal at all, no matter how well founded?”
The answer is probably the former. In any case, one could easily apply
Burack’s interpretive methods to his own article. One would quote
selectively, argue that the problems he addresses are “not all
that significant,” and darkly allege that “other agendas
may be at work.”
Second, there is not much about what teachers say and do in
their classrooms. Schug thinks that real teachers (those who survive
their first-year of hazing by students) ignore what they were taught
in education schools (p. 101). Ellington and Eaton cite evidence that
teachers are considerably more conservative than education professors
(p. 72). Burack thinks that the relativism preached by education experts
may be “triggering an understandable, if in some cases equally
mindless, reaction against it” (p. 41). Nevertheless, most contributors
assume that education professors are causally responsible for poor student
outcomes. If teachers pay little attention to their professors, then
this cannot be true.
Each contributor to Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong?”
ends with recommendations, but I think they can be roughly summarized
as follows: History is the core subject matter. Teachers are responsible
for teaching it, and there are limits to student-centered, experiential
approaches. American history should be taught “warts-and-all,”
but most current textbooks are far too critical about American institutions.
(Several authors emphasize that the United States is the single best
polity in history; see, for instance, p. 27.) The scope and sequence
of social studies education is misconceived, because students do not
have to start with their own neighborhoods and work outward (p. 115).
Learning about heroes and struggles from the past is inspiring at any
age. Teachers must be careful not to try to reform society through social
studies education, but they should impart rigorous knowledge of the
On his website, Finn gave The Civic Mission of Schools a
“C+.” Given his explanation of poor student outcomes (he
blames groups like the NEA and NCSS), it would have been awkward for
him to give the report an “A.” But he couldn’t give
it an “F,” either, because there are too many points of
common ground. In particular:
• There is not a whiff of relativism in the Civic Mission
of Schools, which emphasizes the importance of factual knowledge
and “moral and civic virtues.” We do say that “competent
and responsible citizens” are “tolerant of ambiguity and
resist simplistic answers to complex questions”; but this does
not imply skepticism or relativism. Diane Ravitch says something quite
similar: “teachers and textbooks [must] recognize the possibility
of fallibility and uncertainty” (p. 5).
• Finn thinks that one problem with social studies is the emphasis
on testing in reading, writing, and math. He argues that “what
gets tested is what gets taught,” and therefore “NCLB is
beginning to have deleterious effects” on civics. This is also
a theme in the Civic Mission.
• J. Martin Rochester cites the same evidence of student disengagement
that we cite (e.g., declining turnout), and endorses Kids Voting because
of its thoughtful combination of knowledge and experience (p. 28).
• I personally share Burack’s criticism of superficial multiculturalism
that doesn’t go into depth on any culture or ever address the
negative aspects of cultures other than our own (p. 50).
In short, the two reports are not worlds apart, although there are
significant differences, and several contributors to the Fordham report
bitterly criticize the very groups that signed the Civic Mission.
Monday, July 21
This is from the National Coalition for History (NCH)
We now have some additional information and some troubling news ...
The Senate appropriations committee recommends a program increase
of $15 million specifically for the President Bush's "We the
People" initiative [to promote the teaching of history and
civics in schools]. While at first the increase might appear to be
a cause for celebration, the committee failed to embrace the administration's
recommendation of $25 million and it made it clear that it wants the
final design of the NEH's "We the People" initiative to
reflect "congressional priorities" -- meaning pending legislation
(S. 504) sponsored by Senator Lamar Alexander -- the "American
History and Civics Education Act of 2003" -- that recently
passed the Senate 90-0 and is currently pending in the House.
For what little it's worth, I have endorsed
the Alexander bill, which would mainly create summer academies for teachers
and students. However, it would be troubling if the necessary money
came straight out of the NEH budget.
According to the NCH, some in the "history community ... point
out that the Alexander bill is heavily loaded with what is characterized
as 'value-laden concepts,' thus raising concerns about "the politicization
of the teaching of history." The ideal of value-free history is
dubious, for both epistemological and moral reasons. However, I can
see the historians' point that it is dangerous for Congress to mandate
particular values in the teaching of history. At least, this should
be done carefully and with public debate. I also think that there is
a difference between "civics" (which ought to be heavily value-laden)
and history (which needs to be more "objective"). This difference
makes it problematic to lump history and civics together in the same
federal program with the same authorizing language.
Wednesday, July 2
As I've noted before, people in the civic education world are now seriously
discussing a national campaign to revive "civic ed" in
schools. But there are interesting debates about strategy. It seems
to me that people variously believe:
1) All the action is at the state level, where standards, assessment
methods, and textbooks are chosen. So we have to intervene there, and
right away. Any federal legislation that actually passes will be small
2) A new campaign should focus at the federal level, since others are
advocating in the states. Federal legislation is significant because
it can generate national interest and leverage resources, and it needs
to be good.
3) We need a public relations campaign to get people concerned about
civic education and to raise the public salience of the issue.
4) Public relations is irrelevant, because policymakers are going to
make decisions about standards and assessment too soon to be influenced
by popular opinion. Besides, it would be far too expensive to raise
public concern sufficiently.
5) We need to develop grassroots-level campaigns in favor of civic education,
involving various local stakeholders and young people themselves.
6) We should tailor messages for select decision-makers, especially
officials in state departments of education, stressing ways that they
can improve civics without huge financial costs and without risking
lower test scores in reading, writing, and math.
I have views on these matters (leaning toward 1 and 4, and 5 and/or
6), but I'm by no means sure that I'm right.
Thursday, June 26
I'm one of about 200 peoplemostly corporate executiveswho
signed an open letter to President Bush that's printed as a full-page
ad in today's New York Times. It reads, in part: "AmeriCorps
programs are closing. Young people who want to serve their country are
being turned away. Communities, schools and children are losing their
AmeriCorps mentors, tutors, teachers and builders . . . Please save
these essential AmeriCorps programs that have done so much good for
our communities." (I can't find a link to the Times ad,
but the Washington Post has a
story about it.)
Monday, June 23
Last Friday, the Senate passed, by a 90-0 vote, the "American
History and Civics Education Act (S. 504), that had been introduced
by Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN). The bill would create summer institutes
for k-12 teachers in college settings, where they would study civics
and history. It would give some high school juniors and seniors the
opportunity to attend a different set of summer academies; and it would
organize a National Alliance of Teachers of History and Civics, for
the sharing of information and ideas.
Senator Alexander said, Civics is being dropped from many school
curricula. More than half the states have no requirement for a course
in American government. And American history has been watered down,
textbooks are dull, and their pages feature victims and diminish heroes.
Because of politically correct attitudes from the left and right, teachers
are afraid to teach the great controversies and struggles that are the
essence of American history.
I heartily agree and think that Alexander's points can be substantiated
with solid evidence. Partly as a result of the way we teach (or fail
to teach) civics, the actual participation of young people in politics
and civic life is dropping, and the least advantaged are the most often
Many people in the "civic-ed" world are now calling for a
movement to revese these trends, using the Civic
Mission of Schools report as the blueprint. This movement or campaign
would have to address fundamental problems that go well beyond what
Senator Alexander mentioned. Above all, social studies are being squeezed
out of the curriculum, especially in grades 1-8, because of budget cuts
and an emphasis on testing in reading and math. S. 504 has no direct
bearing on these trends. It deals with the in-service education of teachersa
worthy goal, if not a crucial one. But S. 504 could have an indirect
positive effect if the participating k-12 teachers and their college
instructors become a national network of advocates for civic education.
Here's hoping it passes the House and gets adequately funded.
Tuesday, June 17
Standards and testing are hugely important in k-12 education
these days. Meanwhile, many people who are interested in improving American
democracy would like to make it more "deliberative." In a
deliberative democracy, the public would rule on the basis of one person,
one vote, but with as much informed discussion as possible before any
Educational standards can be beneficial for deliberative democracy.
They are public statements of expectations for students and schools,
issued by accountable democratic bodies, and subject to debate. Standards
can be good or bad for education (depending on what they contain), but
they seem completely compatible with public deliberation and popular
sovereignty. Testing, on the other hand, is problematic from this perspective.
Tests must be designed by small groups in private. They can't be public
documents and still function well as assessments. The designers of tests
tend to be specialists, since designing good instruments is a difficult,
technical task. Thus experts have considerable power and are held accountable
to professional or technical norms, rather than public judgment.
The risk of tests for deliberative democracy is clearest in the case
of norm-referenced exams (such as the SAT). To design a norm-referenced
test, experts write possible test questions almost randomly and try
them out on small samples of students. For the actual test, they retain
those trial questions that statistically correlated with past questions
asked on the same test (i.e., those questions that the high-scorers
tend to answer correctly). This is a strictly technical approach that
appears to avoid any judgments about what is important to learn. But
of course such judgments are made implicitly, since any test must assess
some skills or bodies of knowledge and not others. As a result, exams
like the SAT have powerful social effects, yet the public doesn't control,
and cannot even debate, their content.
Such tests are bad for public deliberation. Standards are potentially
good. The problem is that we often don't know how to enforce
standards without tests, and unenforceable standards are not good for
either education or democracy.
Friday, May 30
I'm still at the Education Commission
of the States in Denver, discussing state standards in civics. One
distinguished colleague argued that no educational reform really succeeds
unless a state has all of the following elements in place: appropriate
standards, tests, courses, textbooks, funding, and professional development
opportunities. (It can also be useful to have appropriate admissions
requirements at the state university.) Unfortunately, all the elements
of an effective civics program are missing in most states today. This
is a serious matter, for young people are being inadequately prepared
to participate in politics in civic life, and consequently many are
not involved at all. (We make this general argument in The
Civic Mission of Schools report.)
Thursday, May 29
I'm in Denver, at the Education Commission
of the States, talking about state standards in civics and social
studies. The topic is what students should know, think, feel, and
do about politics and civil society. The group is very well informed
and represents all the relevant disciplines and professions. So far,
there have been few (if any) broad and systematic disagreements. Most
experts feel some tension about standards, accountability, and testing.
They ask themselves: are these things inherently harmful, since they
reduce schools' capacity to operate democratically, or do we need good
standards and tests to encourage civics? There was also a very interesting
discussion that pitted academics (including me) against a school superintendent
of a fairly major school system. The academics worry that schools are
suppressing discussion of controversial political issues. The superintendent
told horror stories about teachers who proselytize for various fringe
political causes. I certainly could see his point about the risksboth
moral and politicalof encouraging teachers to bring politics into
the classroom. On the other hand, if we prevent teachers from advocating
for political causes, then there is a risk that students will never
meet any adults who are politically active and articulate.
Thursday, May 1
Today was the White
House Forum on American History, Civics, and Service, a big
event in my field. Our Civic
Mission of Schools report was distributed to all 250 of the
White House's guests and received a lot of attention.
The Forum exemplified official Washington. The President delivered
an especially prepared greeting from a gigantic video screen. Much was
made of his new initiative to support history teaching. The First Lady
and Lynne Cheney, guarded visibly by the Secret Service, made speeches;
and everyone stood each time one of these women took the podium. (Some
of the sanctity of high executive office transfers to spouses, apparently.)
Patriotic video montages of American history were displayed on the screen.
A huge reproduction of a manuscript copy of the Constitution was the
backdrop all day. Teenagers were paraded (silently) on stage and bedecked
with medalsquite literally. Speakers were introduced with long
recitals of their achievements; there was also much thanks to funders
and assembled dignataries. Almost all the speakers quoted at least one
framer of the Constitution (often deploying little-known and highly
relevant quotesto their credit). Martin Luther King Jr. was also
cited widely; and many sentimental stories were told about disadvantaged
children. No one mentioned the name of a political party or a major
ideology, lest the spirit of nonpartisanship be disturbed. There was
general air of congratulation, directed at the people and organizations
in the room and at America itselfwith one exception: at least
half the speakers wagged their fingers at young Americans today for
their shocking ignorance of history.
My academic training makes me want to rebel against this kind of show.
I want to ask: What do we know about the trends in historical knowledge
over time? What do we know about the factors that make historical education
successful? What is the impact of a historical education, or of historical
knowledge, on people over their lifetimes? What will the impact of the
new presidential initiative be? (At $100 million over three years, it
represents a vanishingly small commitment in the context of the federal
budget.) Since there are competing grand narratives of American history,
how do we know which one is more correct? Is Howard Zinn's story of
greed and violence (which was explicitly criticized during the session)
false? Is it less valid than the "moderate triumphalist" narrative
that one speaker recommended as an alternative? What are the effects
of such stories on youth development?
Notwithstanding all these questions and doubts, I recognize that public
institutions are not academic seminars. Mutual praise is oil that probably
has to be poured periodically over civil society. Vague statements of
commitment from the President of the United States are not empty; they
are useful ammunition in struggles at the local level. And leaders are
entitled to make a big deal about $100 million programs that they have
proposed. You would have to be a kind of political puritan to expect
them not to capitalize on the symbolism of such initiatives. It doesn't
only take truth and critical debate to make large institutions run;
they also need symbolism, ritual, and even etiquette. Washington does
these things well.
Tuesday, April 29
I spoke today at the Cesar
Chavez Public Charter School for Public Policy, which is a wonderful
school that I have visited before. It's a crowded warren of rooms on
an upstairs floor of a former industrial building, where kids are intensely
involved in regular classes, public-service internships, and the study
of public policy. If we are going to have broad-based, creative, informed
leadership in the District of Columbia (and other troubled cities),
then experiments like Chavez must work. It seems quite clear that the
school is successful at presentone hundred percent of its
graduates attend college, and all seem inspired to work on social problems.
There are, however, the usual questions about whether the Chavez model
is replicable, or whether it depends on remarkably charismatic and dedicated
Monday, April 28
I was interviewed over the weekend by a group called Civic Honors.
The interview is posted here.
It was an opportunity to say why I personally believe in civic engagement.
My philosophical position would be something like this: (1) Volunteerism
is an inadequate form of civic engagement, because it replaces political
action with service, which does not address the root cause of problems
or tap the political capacities of the volunteers. (2) Civic engagement
should be cultivated for two reasons. First, if we don't deliberately
teach it, the least advantaged among us will be the first to disengage,
leading to political inequality later on. Second, civic participation
is a good human activity. It is not the only or highest good activity:
theoretical reflection, spiritual contemplation, appreciation of nature,
creation of art, and care for family members are some of the other
activities that are inherently good. All of these ends or projects
are preferable to the forms of life that are more frequently advertised
to young people: consumerism, athletics, and sexual gratification.
Moreover, in public schools, we cannot teach activities connected
to spirituality or care for family. Therefore, we ought to teach civic
engagement (along with art and science) so that it is an option available
to young people.
Tuesday, March 4
The Civic Mission
of Schools, our report on civic education, has been getting
quite a lot of pressmost of it positive. But Chester Finn wrote
a critical review
that has been provoking some discussion in the civic engagement
Monday, February 17
Today, President's Day, was supposed to be the White House Forum on
American History, Civics, and Service. We were excited, because we had
just launched our report on The
Civic Mission of Schools; John Bridgeland had formally praised
it on behalf of the administration; and it was to be distributed at
the Forum. But with Washington buried under perhaps the biggest snowfall
in its recorded history, the Forum was cancelled. I am, however, delighted
to link to a Sunday article
by David Broder that not only endorses The Civic Mission of Schools;
it also deftly and accurately summarizes it. And today's Washington
Post has a masthead
editorial endorsing the report. (Unfortunately, the Post
was hardly delivered to anyone today, since side streets were impassable.)
Thursday, February 13
Today was finally the big release of The
Civic Mission of Schools. (I can finally link to the text of this
report, which had been embargoed until today.) John Bridgeland, Advisor
to the President and Director of USA Freedom Corps, made a very nice
speech in formally "receiving" it for the press. About 150
people were present for the lunch/launch, including Vartan Gregorian,
who spoke eloquently, and many authors and endorsers (and friends in
the civic engagement world). I thought it went very wellat any
rate, I'm relieved that it's done.
Friday, January 31
I've been writing my proposal for an innovative high school civics
textbook. I'm tentatively calling it Civics for Citizens. Unlike
any competing text, it will combine challenging academic content with
exercises and materials designed to help students experience civic life
through discussions and community service. Furthermore, in the part
devoted to academic instruction, Civics for Citizens will present
an unusual selection of topics. Many high school civics and government
texts contain difficult and detailed information about the structure
and process of government, but they never introduce students to basic
concepts from social theory, philosophy, and economicsterms such
as "externality," "utilitarianism," and "free
rider." Yet these are the most influential ideas in policy debates
among researchers, regulators, and legislators. If young citizens never
learn these ideas, then they cannot participate in (or even follow)
crucial debates and must leave the outcomes to elites.
Consider the concept of an "externality," which seems at
first glance to be too technical for a civics class. Sometimes, a voluntary
exchange among free individuals creates harms for others who did not
agree to the deal. For instance, companies produce goods that their
customers willingly buy, but they also generate pollution that affects
everyone. This is an example of an externality. If you think that externalities
are serious problems, then you may want the government to interfere
to mitigate the damage. On the other hand, if you think that externalities
are mostly not serious problemsor that the burdens of regulation
are worsethen you may want less government interference. The debate
about how much the government should regulate is perhaps the central
political argument in modern times, and it rests on conflicting ideas
about externalities. As you go through life, your personal experiences
and your understanding of current events may help you to decide what
you think about externalities and regulations. But first you need to
understand the underlying concepts.
Monday, January 27
I'm working ineffectively on lots of separate projects, including trying
to fix the NACE Website so that it works
for older Web browsers. In between things, I've been writing a proposal
for a new kind of high school civics textbook. If I ever found
a publisher interested in it, I'd have to shelve a lot of other writing
projects, but it would be worthwhile.
The leading texts for high school government classes are basically
political science primers written at the tenth- or twelfth-grade level.
They describe the mechanics of the federal government as if from a distance,
without explaining how an ordinary citizen can play important roles
in community affairs, without addressing complex ethical and moral questions;
without helping students to reason about contemporary issues, and without
describing civic and political institutions other than the federal government
(which is remote from students' lives).
Because textbooks deal mainly with the structure of the national government,
government classes have little connection to students' direct experience
of civic and political issues, which they gain through community service,
membership in groups outside the school, and extracurricular participation.
Meanwhile, students' practical experiences are largely separate from
their academic work, despite evidence that community service best encourages
civic development when it is combined with learning in the classroom.
In short, there is a profound need for a textbook that combines analysis
of political institutions; guidance about how to think about complex
public issues at all levels from the school to the world; a thorough
and challenging treatment of ethics; and practical instructions for
meaningful community service projects.
Thursday, January 9
The big thing that is going on at CIRCLE
is our soon-to-be completed joint report with the Carnegie
Corporation, entitled "The Civic Mission of Schools."
We worked all fall to hold meetings and email discussions for about
55 people who are contributors to, and potential endorsers of, the report.
The final draft is now with these people for their last comments, and
they are to decide whether to endorse. Monday is the deadline. Some
participants want changes; the big debate is about whether it is necessary
to run schools in a more democratic manner. For some of our participants,
this is the key to reform. For others, it is risky and unsupported by
research evidence. We are working to develop compromise language that
is meaningful advice to schools. I remain confident that we will have
a solid report with 50 signatories. (Meanwhile, I'm spending a lot of
my time on practical details like layout, copy-editing, scheduling the