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December 15, 2005

why schools and colleges often overlook civic development

Markets may have advantages for education, but they pose special problems for civic education. The civic development of young people will be undervalued in any market system, unless we take deliberate and rather forceful efforts to change that pattern.

The degree to which markets govern education varies according to the type of institution. At one extreme, competitive research universities fight tooth-and-nail for faculty and students who have enormous choice about where to work or study. Community colleges and local universities are somewhat more insulated from markets, although they do compete with more distant institutions, for-profit colleges, and the workforce. Independent private schools compete fiercely for students, less so for faculty. Charter schools and schools funded by public vouchers have been deliberately placed in markets in which parents are the "consumers." Finally, even a large, standard, urban public school system is in a kind of market. To the extent that parents have resources, they can choose to move away or to enroll their children in private or parochial schools. Likewise, public school teachers often have some degree of choice about where to work.

To see why the market undersupplies civic education, consider what parents want schools and colleges to do for their own children. First, they may want their children to learn the skills, values, and knowledge necessary to be good citizens who can keep track of public issues, deliberate with others, build consensus, and take appropriate action. In a 2004 poll, 71% of adults said that it was important to "prepare students to be competent and responsible citizens who participate in our democratic society" (pdf).

It benefits everyone if these attributes are widespread. However, if most people are good citizens, then it doesn't matter much whether one's own kid has civic skills and values: he or she will benefit anyway. And if most people are not prepared for active and responsible citizenship, then there is not much that an individual can do to improve a democratic society. Thus there are reasons for parents--and their children, once they enter adolescence--to make civic education a low priority. I heard a teacher in a focus group say that if you ask parents whether schools have a civic mission, they will agree, because they know it's the right thing to say. But they really want their own kids to get an education that will help them to get ahead; "civic education is for other people's kids."

We know that parents want their children to gain marketable skills that will increase their economic security. Eighty-one percent of adults endorsed "preparing students for the workforce and employment" as a top goal of schools. Such skills are especially valuable in a highly competitive, global "knowledge economy" that changes rapidly. We know from survey data and qualitative research that young people are increasingly aware of the need to amass "human capital" (marketable skills). It is good for the whole community and nation if such skills are widespread, but human capital also benefits each person who possesses it. Therefore, parents and kids alike are motivated to obtain skills with economic value.

Third, parents may want their kids to obtain markers of economic value, quite apart from any actual skills. A college degree is worth a lot of money, especially if it is a degree from a competitive, prestigious institution. The degree would be economically valuable even if the graduate did not know much of value.

College students score higher on tests of knowledge and critical thinking near the end of their undergraduate careers than at the beginning. The best estimates suggest that college exposure has a positive effect--between one quarter and one half of a standard deviation, depending on what outcomes we measure. However, there is remarkably little evidence that the type of college matters, even though colleges differ extraordinarily in size, selectivity, and mission.* To me, this finding suggests that little of what a college does intentionally to educate students has an impact. Students grow, in part thanks to the college experience (which includes extracurricular activities and living arrangements); but they do not benefit to an impressive degree from college teaching.

One aspect of the "college experience" (and also the k-12 experience) is exposure to other kids. This is a fourth goal that parents may have: to enroll their own children with other students who are on track for economic success. Peers can provide valuable networks and role models. Thus parents may want their students to attend selective institutions, regardless of educational quality.

Now consider the same issue from the perspective of a college or a k-12 school that has some control over student admissions and other policies. (And remember that even a standard public school system may compete with neighboring systems for students and faculty.) The easiest way for such institutions to satisfy the market is to pay some lip service to the cause of civic education--since most parents say they want other people's kids to be good citizens--but to focus all serious resources on developing students' marketable skills.

Furthermore, for some important institutions, it is easier to provide markers of economic value than actually to add value. If an institution can become highly competitive and admit only the best qualified applicants, then its students will gain a reputation for being desirable employees regardless of what they learn in the institution. Essentially, the admissions office will provide a service that is worth a lot of money to successful applicants, by selecting the few who are most marketable. If the admissions office can make someone wealthy simply by admitting him, then there isn't much pressure to educate him once he matriculates. The pressure is greater in k-12 schools, but even there, success can be guaranteed if a school is able to admit only a small percentage of applicants. Even a public school system can achieve high rates of success without a lot of effort if many privileged families choose to live within its boundaries.

Meanwhile, schools and colleges must try to attract the best qualified faculty--in part because that is a way to increase their attractiveness to potential parents and students. In a competitive market for teachers (especially at the college level), an institution can offer its faculty light teaching loads and lots of time to concentrate on research that is valued inside their disciplines. If an institution puts pressure on its faculty to enhance students' skills, then the most successful professors can avoid the pressure by simply leaving. That is especially true if they are asked to enhance students' civic skills, values, and knowledge, because the academic disciplines do not value these outcomes. In turn, the departure of well-known faculty can make an institution less desirable to students; and a decline in the number of applicants will cause a university to fall in the U.S. News & World Report ranking. A vicious cycle ensues. A similar pattern can occur in any k-12 institution that must compete for students--including urban public school systems that compete with nearby suburbs.

One response to this very basic problem is to emphasize that civic education is actually a "private good" for individual students. Parents should value it for their own children because:

(1) the same skills that are useful for civic participation (consensus-building, working with diverse people, addressing common problems) are also increasingly valuable in the 21st-century workplace;
(2) students who engage in their communities while they attend school and college may feel better about school, gain confidence and motivation, and therefore have a better chance of achieving educational success; and
(3) civic participation arises from human relationships and obligations that can be intrinsically fulfilling.

In my view, there is insufficient research evidence for these points, although they are plausible. Moreover, if schools and colleges provide service-learning opportunities and other forms of civic education because of their potential private benefits for students, they may not achieve good civic outcomes. Convergent research from numerous studies shows that civic outcomes require intentionality on the part of instructors and institutions.

Perhaps we can make some limited progress if we challenge ranking systems like the one sold by U.S. News & World Report, because it uses selectivity as evidence of excellence. That method does not reward institutions for educating their students. Alternative rankings, such as Washington Monthly's College Guide, at least give applicants and their parents the opportunity to consider institutions' impact on students (including their civic impact). Likewise, measuring the civic outcomes of k-12 schools might somewhat change the way that parents and taxpayers evaluate these institutions.

However, I think that the problem outlined here is fundamental and cannot be solved merely by providing alternative rankings and assessments (in a word, information). In a decentralized system, public goods tend to be under-supplied. Civic participation is a public good. An outside power, probably the government, must apply leverage to change the priorities of schools and colleges.

*Ernest T. Pascarella and Patrick T. Terenzini, How College Affects Students: Vol. 2, A Third Decade of Research (Jossey-Bass, 2005), p.145-6; 205-6.

Posted by peterlevine at December 15, 2005 11:11 AM

Comments

Great analysis of college education. It's probably a reasonable a claim though that course work provides valuable focus to the learning experience in dorms and friendship circles. If young adults went to a year around day care, they would probably learn less.

I learned a lot of micro-economics from my room- and house mates. The reason was that they were studying economics.

By the way, my children's elementary school does a great job involving them civically. The teachers are a great resource but the PTA is in the driver's seat.

Posted by: Hellmut Lotz [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 15, 2005 01:55 PM

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