May 4, 2011

some surprising results from the 2010 NAEP Civics assessment

The headline in The New York Times says: Failing Grades on Civics Exam Called a ‘Crisis’. Whether that's how you read the data is a matter of opinion, but I can shed a little light on the source.

The National Assessment in Educational Progress in Civics is our best measure of what students know about civic, legal, and political concepts and facts. It is a no-stakes test of a representative sample of almost 20,000 American students. It assesses knowledge and skills that are relevant to civic participation, but they are fairly academic skills of individuals, not skills that people commonly use in groups. For instance, students may be asked to interpret the text of a speech, but not run a meeting.

The NAEP Civics assessment has been given only sporadically but is now on a regular three-year cycle. I was on the committee responsible for the 2010 assessment and will help again with the 2013 version. I would describe it as a rather hard test which most adults would badly flunk. It is closely tied to academic content in American history and government, so you have to recall quite a few Supreme Court decisions and constitutional principles to do well.

Today, the results were released for 2010. In brief, 4th graders improved their mean scores, whereas scores for 8th and 12th graders did not change. This is interesting because our research has found that time devoted to civics shrank recently in the early grades but not in the later grades, where the number of credits earned in social studies actually rose.

To be specific, time spent on civics or social studies shrank in the first through fifth grades from 1999-2004. (We don't know what happened after that.) Yet fourth-grade NAEP civics scores rose from 1998 to 2006 and again from 2006 to 2010.

According to the NAEP, 97 percent of twelfth-graders report that they have studied civics or government in high school. That is consistent with other research that finds most kids study the topic. It means that the solution to our concerns about civic knowledge should not be to require civics. It is already being studied. On the other hand, the high dropout rate means that a 12th grade assessment misses almost one third of our young people, and many of the dropouts received little civics education.

A closer look at the 12th grade results shows that most of our graduating seniors can identify an argument made in Marbury v. Madison or explain part of the Fourteenth Amendment. But very few can summarize the views of Reagan and Roosevelt on economics or compare the citizenship requirements of the US to other countries. They seem to score better on questions concerning constitutional and legal issues than on political matters.

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April 12, 2011

defunding civic education

From what I am hearing, the budget deal negotiated by Congress and the President had the following effects on civic education:

Learn & Serve America, the program within the Corporation for National and Community Service that funds "service-learning" in k-12 schools, colleges and universities, nonprofits, and Native American communities, was eliminated completely--after 21 years of work.

The Center for Civic Education, a national nonprofit whose primary source of funds for decades has been the United States Department of Education, was allocated no money. I think the entire civic education portfolio in the Department was zeroed out.

The Teaching American History grant program (which mainly supports educational opportunities for teachers of k-12 history) was cut by about 36 percent.

I have been critical of the way some of these funds were used in the past; improvements are possible. But for the national government to invest nothing in the civic education of young people is unacceptable.

For other cuts that affect democratic processes in the United States, see the Campaign for Stronger Democracy.

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April 5, 2011

why it is good to talk to people across the political spectrum

Three lively discussions about civic education within two weeks: one at the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan, the next at James Madison's Montpelier, the third in DC. A similar topic, but the participants came from very different places on our wide political spectrum.

At CUNY, at least one participant believed that No Child Left Behind was a right-wing strategy to privatize all public schools. (The theory goes: once schools fail to meet the Adequate Yearly Progress benchmarks, students will be given vouchers.) Another speaker simply called charter schools "private" and saw them as a manifestation of creeping market fundamentalism. I don't know whether these views represented consensus in the room, but no one challenged them. There was some talk about trying to revive the "open classroom" movement of the 1970s. A distinguished and experienced scholar said that he had expected Barack Obama's election to change everything, but when that failed, he was now ready to give up on politics.

At Montpelier, at least one participant felt that any federal intervention in education is unconstitutional (because education is not listed among the enumerated powers). Thus to try to influence the federal government to support civic education would be to mis-educate our students, who should be learning that the government has wantonly exceeded its constitutional limits. No Child Left Behind is a liberal plot to get the federal government deeply implicated in our schools. There was much talk about teaching the founding documents of the Republic. Some people felt that we should stay out of politics and policy completely and instead create small, alternative spaces where teachers and students could explore first principles.

These contrasting thoughts clear one's head, challenge one's clichés, and take one back to first principles. What is the proper role of a national government in civic education? What should students learn, and how? And how can we even consider national standards, if our adults disagree so profoundly about the core purposes of education?

(The participants in DC seemed less explicitly ideological to me, perhaps because they were much more numerous, predominantly centrist, and focused on pending policy changes.)

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March 29, 2011

Arne Duncan on civic education policy

(Washington, DC) At a conference here on Educating for Democracy in a Digital Age, the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, said, "A foundation in civics education is not a luxury but a necessity. ... Civics cannot be pushed to the sidelines in schools. .... At the same time, civics instruction needs to be more engaging and exciting, both inside and outside the classroom. ... It's time for us to dust off and revitalize civics education for the 21st century."

Duncan said that many students receive an implicit message that they don't have to pay attention to civics. To succeed, they must focus on reading, math, and science. But "the skills acquired through civic education are critical to succeeding in the knowledge economy." Duncan gave equal emphasis to the political importance of civics for a democracy. "Civics education is the first bullwark against tyranny."

He cited statistics about low knowledge of civics. He assigned some responsibility to schools. "Too often, our schools are doing a poor job of transmitting civic knowledge." The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress showed "distressing disparities--what we call 'the civics achievement gap.'" (I am glad he uses that phrase, which you could read first on our website.)

Duncan cited iCivics, Rock the Vote, the American Bar Association, and Mikva Challenge as examples of cutting-edge civic education (giving Mikva an extended and well-deserved endorsement).

Duncan said that wherever he goes, people complain about the narrowing of the curriculum. History and civics are also important. It's "simply unacceptable" for schools to have to choose between reading and math and civics.

He summarized the administration's excellent proposal to replace small, earmarked civics programs with a much larger competitive pool of funding. His proposal, however, lumps civics together with all the disciplines currently subject to being crowded out of our schools. We would prefer a separate pool for civics so that it doesn't get lost.

Civics is about giving students the skills for effective participation. The "need to improve civic education is urgent, but with great need comes great opportunity." He called the Internet more than a source of information; it is also a platform for students to create and organize.

In response to a question about bullying, he said he was especially excited about opportunities for the students themselves to build zero-tolerance against bullying.

Duncan was one of the keynoters at the conference. Others included Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and former Rep. Lee Hamilton (the co-chairs of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools); the presidents of the MacArthur and McCormick Tribune foundations, and all-star academics like Joe Kahne and Diana Hess.

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March 25, 2011

assessment: an overview

Recently I presented some thoughts about why and how we might use assessment in civic education. Most of my points apply to education in general. People seemed to find these ideas useful, so I offer my notes here.

Assessment for what?

Assessment of whom?

Assessment of what?

Assessment by whom?

Assessment how?

What we lack

In the civics field, we are most seriously in need of:

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March 24, 2011

Congress considers honoring Christina Taylor-Green by supporting civil discussion in schools

House resolution 181 proposes to honor "the memory of Christina-Taylor Green by encouraging schools to teach civic education and civil discourse in public schools." I love the bill for three reasons:

First, the very best way to honor the life of an exemplary 9-year old citizen (who was killed while trying to participate in a public dialog with her elected representative) is to encourage such experiences for other children.

Second, the bill, while it is simply a resolution that has no teeth, does include several worthy provisions. If the resolution passed, Congress would recognize "the importance of returning the teaching of civic education and civil discourse to schools, especially for students in grades 6 through 12;... [encourage] the Secretary of Education to direct schools receiving Federal funding to include instruction in civic education and civil discourse; [and encourage] schools and teachers to conduct educational programming on the importance and methods of civic education and civil discourse."

Third, the short text of the bill cites us, accurately and explicitly:

I say, pass H. RES. 181!

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March 17, 2011

schools' role in enhancing liberty

I'm going down to New York and back today for a public discussion at the CUNY Graduate Center. My fellow panelists and I have been asked to address the following questions (among others):

I may put the following views on the table. One view is that parents should instill ideological (or religious) commitments in their children, while schools should only teach "civility and civic duty in conventional participation." (Quoting Michael McDevitt and Ally Ostrowski, who are critical of this view.) The reason for this division of labor could be deference to parents and families and fear of the state.

A second view (more classically liberal) assumes that parents will try to instill ideological beliefs, but their influence is problematic, because they can limit their children's freedom to understand and choose among diverse values and ideals. Schools should increase freedom by exposing kids to a range of values and supportive arguments, including those held in other families. In this theory, as in the first one, schools are committed to "civility and conventional participation," but now that means civil discussions among diverse people about controversial issues.

McDevitt and Ostrowski show that the empirical reality is a lot more complicated. Many parents do not instill political beliefs in their kids. Sometimes, robust political discussions in schools cause students to bring ideas home that influence parents. For some students, exposure to ideas not espoused at home strengthens their own identity as members of their families. Children react in diverse ways to influences from parents, peers, teachers, and schools--sometimes experimenting with opposite views.

Philosophically, I endorse the liberal position that schools should widen students' intellectual options, even if doing so undermines the influence of parents. In fact, I think a serious critique of libertarianism begins with the recognition that parents have potentially tyrannical influence over their offspring, and liberty requires state education. Of course, no politician could get away with espousing this position: "We will take your children away from you during the daytime for 13 years so that they are free to choose different values from yours."

The classical liberal position suggests that teachers should be neutral. Political neutrality is a bit of a chimera, because institutions always have strong implicit or explicit ideologies. Nevertheless, teachers can choose either to indoctrinate their students or to organize vibrant, unpredictable, unconstrained discussions. The latter is the classical liberal approach.

It is, however, an empirical question which pedagogy maximizes students' real freedom to choose their own values and goals. Jim Youniss and Miranda Yates wrote a book about a particular Catholic school in which the teachers are openly religious, Democratic, and liberal. Most of the students are African American Protestants of varied ideologies. The authors find that the teachers' strong and explicit value-commitments do not cause students to convert but rather stimulate them to serious and lasting reflection and engagement. So the question is whether value-neutrality or explicit commitment is a better strategy for teaching young people to think critically. I do not think we have a clear and universally applicable answer to that question.

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March 7, 2011

support funding for civic educatiion

The Senate's proposal for a long-term continuing resolution includes a pool of $35 million to be distributed as competitive grants for k-12 civic education. These funds would help develop, strengthen, and evaluate innovative educational strategies. Strategies that worked could then be widely used by teachers and schools across the country.

In contrast, the House has passed HR 1, the full-year appropriations act, that ends all federal funding for civics.

Civic education has bipartisan support, deep historical precedent (going back to Thomas Jefferson)--and it costs a pittance. The Senate proposal equals one seventeen hundredth of all the House domestic budget cuts. We are not asking the federal government to fund, require, or evaluate civic education, but only to fund improvements in teaching that can "go to scale." If you agree, please call or email your Senators to support the competitive funding pool for civics. Ask them to contact Senator Harkin to state their support.

The Senate votes tomorrow, so this is urgent.

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February 17, 2011

the civic value of extracurriculars

The evidence is very strong that extracurricular activities enhance democracy, yet there is little explicit advocacy for extracurricular participation. Some adult groups support and defend student groups that specifically interest them, whether that means Christian bible clubs or Gay, Lesbian and Straight Alliances. Civil libertarians defend students' legal rights to associate. But nobody is organized to say that there should be adequate funding, support, space, and time for a whole range of voluntary associations in all of our schools.

All students should have opportunities to join voluntary groups that have serious functions and that are adequately supported with money, equipment, and adults' time. Many studies have found lasting relationships between participation in such school groups and membership and service in adulthood. In some studies, membership in school groups turns out to be a better predictor of adult engagement than is education or income.

In turn, adult membership is valuable because voluntary associations do important public work, and their members also tend to read the newspaper, vote, and otherwise engage. Thus to recruit students into satisfying extracurricular activities may help make them civic activists, news consumers, and voters—even thirty or fifty years later. Presented with this argument at a meeting of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor recalled that she had been a shy high school student until she joined a school group. She was then on a path to become an attorney, an influential state legislator, and the first woman Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Almost any school houses a "civil society" composed of organized groups and various informal networks and interest groups. In CIRCLE's 2006 national survey of youth, 62 percent of high school students said that they were "currently participating in any organized groups or clubs in high school such as sports teams, band or chorus, language clubs, or the like." Unfortunately, the most common types of groups (athletics, cheerleading, music, drama, debate, newspaper, yearbook, student government, subject matter clubs, and vocational clubs) shrank between 1972 and 1992, attracting smaller proportions of our young people.

There are several plausible reasons for the link between extracurricular participation and lifelong civic engagement. Belonging to school groups may build confidence, or it may be sufficiently satisfying that members develop a taste for participation. People may form networks in school groups that keep them connected to associations as they age. Not least is the educational value of extracurricular activities. In the terminology of University of Illinois psychology professor Reed Larson, students can obtain opportunities for "initiative" by participating in voluntary, purposive, collective activities such as publishing a school newspaper or organizing a dance. [See also Eccles and Barber.]

Further, as the Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom notes, people must learn how to overcome the problems that beset all collective human enterprises. She writes, "At any time that individuals may gain from the costly action of others, without themselves contributing time and effort, they face collective action dilemmas for which there are coping methods. When de Tocqueville discussed the ‘art and science of association,' he was referring to the crafts learned by those who had solved ways of engaging in collective action to achieve a joint benefit." Ostrom has found that we do not automatically know how to address the problems that beset all voluntary associations, so we must learn strategies from experience. Solutions "must be taught to each generation as part of the culture of a democratic citizenry."

Extracurricular participation can teach people, among other things, how to keep records and chair meetings, how to respond when some members shirk their duties, how to handle a budget, how to persuade groups of peers, and how to advertise the benefits of an association to outsiders. Once these skills are learned, they enhance participation in civil society.

I have been arguing that extracurricular participation helps make students into active and responsible democratic citizens. It is also worth noting that active and responsible civic participation in school helps young people succeed in other aspects of life. Alberto Dávila and Marie T. Mora found [pdf] that "involvement in student government between 1990 and 1992 increased the odds of being a college graduate by 2000 by nearly 18 percentage points." Jacquelynne S. Eccles and Bonnie L. Barber also found strong and lasting correlations between participating in school groups and healthy development: namely, completing high school, succeeding in college, and avoiding drugs and alcohol. They found somewhat ambiguous results for sports, but the advantages of volunteering and church attendance were strong.

In a 2010 study, Reuben Thomas and Daniel McFarland found that participation in extracurricular groups (as a general category) boosted students' voting rates. In their study, high school performing arts were especially helpful for encouraging voting. That may seem surprising since the purpose of a school play has little to do with elections. Perhaps students who bond during a school production also talk about politics and gain a sense of confidence and commitment that encourages them to vote.

In the Thomas and McFarland study, sports stood out—in a bad way. Athletic participation was associated with lower voter turnout. On the other hand, Mark Hugo Lopez and Kimberlee Moore found statistically significant, positive relationships between team sports (on one hand) and volunteering, registering to vote, voting, watching the news, and feeling comfortable making statements at public meetings (on the other hand). Overall, the evidence for the civic impact of sports is mixed—perhaps because students' experience with athletics varies so much. The civic impact of other extracurriculars is unambiguously positive.

A wide range of student associations is valuable, and we should not merely support those whose missions are explicitly civic or political. People who participate in extracurricular activities are more likely than others to engage in community service (even once we adjust for background characteristics), which again suggests that being involved is a good thing, almost without regard to the form of involvement.

In some schools, every student has a roughly equal opportunity to participate; in others, most are left out. In some schools, voluntary groups bridge race, ethnicity, culture, and class; in others, they divide students along those lines. In a given institution, the biggest and most influential groups may emphasize athletic competition, school pride, service, artistic creativity, cultural diversity, or political activism. I am not aware of research that allows us to assess the impact of the overall "ecosystem" of extracurricular groups.

However, if we treat a school's collection of clubs as a microcosm of civil society, then some propositions about the adult nonprofit sector ought to apply. For adults, pluralism and choice are valuable; people cannot be "shepherded" into groups that others may consider most valuable. Even more than adults, adolescents must experiment in order to develop their interests and identities; they should be able to try various roles even if we might not fully approve of them. But even if individuals must be allowed to choose their groups, it is better when civil society cultivates what the Bowling Alone author, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, calls "bridging social capital." That is, people ought to learn to work together with those different from themselves and develop trust and useful networks that "bridge" differences; they should not merely use associational membership to differentiate in-groups from out-groups. In American schools, voluntary associations tend to be exclusive. Without being overly manipulative, adults should foster "bridging" activities and groups.

Finally, certain student groups have explicitly civic purposes and they seem to be especially important for promoting discussion and collaboration across the whole student body. Those include student newspapers (and other publications) and student governments.

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February 16, 2011

why we need civic education

I enjoyed conversations with about 75 supporters of civic education in Colorado yesterday, in three different meetings. They represented school systems, the state education agency, local nonprofits, foundations, and school board members. My comments at the first session are on the Education News Colorado blog, under the headline "Why we need civic education." The comments give a flavor of the conversation.

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December 14, 2010

federal leverage as an employer, and higher education

The federal government provides full-time employment for 2.8 million civilians. In a given month, the feds may hire 50,000 new employees. Imagine if they said: "We are looking for people who have civic skills, who can analyze complex public or social issues and problems in collaboration with other people, including lawyers, scientists, and laypeople. Moreover, we propose to measure those skills in our potential employees--either by giving evaluations to individuals, or by evaluating the educational programs that they have completed." The result would be a scramble to provide more effective civic education at the college level. Private employers might also take the government's lead, since many civic skills are also job skills useful in the private sector.

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December 10, 2010

the philosophical foundations of civic education

Ann Higgins-D’Alessandro and I have published an article under this title in Philosophy & Public Policy Quarterly. It is actually a version (with due permission) of a chapter we published in The Handbook of Research on Civic Engagement in Youth, edited by Lonnie Sherrod, Judith Torney-Purta, and Constance A. Flanagan (John Wiley & Sons, 2010). Here it is online.

We note that educating young people for citizenship is an intrinsically moral task. Even among reasonable people, moral views about citizenship, youth, and education differ. We describe conflicting utilitarian, liberal, communitarian, and civic republican conceptions and cite evaluations of actual civic education programs that seem to reflect those values. We conclude:

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December 3, 2010

youth civic engagement and economic development in the Global South

I will be talking later today about this topic. Since I am far from an expert on the subject, I intend to facilitate a conversation rather than lecture. I will put some points on the table for discussion:

1. According to the World Bank (2007), "Today, 1.5 billion people are ages 12–24 worldwide, 1.3 billion of them in developing countries, the most ever in history." Incorporating that enormous population into political and civic life represents a challenge and an opportunity. ("Civic and political life" means voting, activism, service, belonging to groups, deliberation, careers in the public and nonprofit sectors, production of media and culture--and I would not exclude revolution or war under extreme circumstances.)

2. Among those 1.3 billion young people are many millions who have been involved in criminal gangs or conscripted as child soldiers. The challenges and opportunities are particularly dramatic in those cases.

3. In countries where the age distribution is skewed toward the young, investing adequately in children and teenagers is very difficult. The older generations lack sufficient cash, and even time, to provide for youth when the youth/adult ratio is too high. This is a vast and probably insoluble problem, but it's important to look for high-impact strategies.

4. From evaluations of youth development programs, we know that when "at risk" young people are given opportunities to deliberate, serve, and act politically, they learn, develop healthy personal behaviors, and integrate successfully into society. A moving example from the United States: On entering YouthBuild, the participants--young American adults without high school diplomas--estimate their own life expectancies at 40, on average. Upon completing the program, they have raised the average estimate to 72: evidence that they have gained a sense of opportunity, optimism, and purpose by working together, building houses and studying and discussing social issues.

5. Older people make political decisions that are far from optimal for youth. They pour public money into retirement benefits and health care at the end of life while under-investing in education and preventive health care. Also, entrenched elites (who are, by definition, older) tend to make corrupt decisions. Many countries are experimenting with "social accountability" as a tool for more equitable and less corrupt policy. That means giving the power to make decisions to citizens, organized in deliberative forums. In some places, youth are specifically included in social accountability. For instance, in Fortaleza, Brazil, 50 young people helped shape the municipal budget (PDF, p. 53). Hampton, VA has created a whole pyramid of engagement for its young people, capped by empowered youth councils. Although I don't think we yet have evidence that youth participation produces dramatically better social outcomes, that is highly plausible given (1) the persuasive evidence for social accountability, plus (2) examples in which young people have participated effectively in public processes.

6. Other policies that affect youth civic engagement, for better or worse, include: the extent and content of primary and secondary education; conscription and national service (which sometimes includes civilian alternatives); the criminal justice system and how it treats juvenile offenders; and the rules of the electoral system (including when the voting age is set). These policies can be deeply harmful: for example, when young Americans are permanently stripped of the right to vote because of felony convictions. Or they can be helpful--as when universal schooling supports civic learning.

7. There is nothing intrinsically good about youth civic engagement. Fascism was basically a youth movement. But some societies create a healthy dynamic in which young people introduce new energies, interests, and ideas, while older people maintain institutions and transmit values and experience. Other societies discourage constructive engagement, and the consequences are almost always harmful.

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November 30, 2010

Three C-s of Education Petition Campaign (College, Career and Citizenship)

From the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools:

Click to sign:

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September 30, 2010

what our social studies teachers think

The American Enterprise Institute has released a new survey called "High Schools, Civics, and Citizenship: What Social Studies Teachers Think and Do." I know four of the authors and respect their work in general as well as this particular survey.

Ideology is inescapable when we consider civic (a.k.a. political) education. AEI is generally seen as a conservative organization, but that does not mean that the report is biased or designed to reach conclusions convenient to conservatives. On the contrary, it rebuts the kind of sharp conservative critique represented by Chester Finn and colleagues in a 2003 Thomas B. Fordham Institute report entitled Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong?. Finn claimed that students emerged "from K-12 education and then, alas, from college with ridiculously little knowledge or understanding of their country’s history, their planet's geography, their government's functioning, or the economy's essential workings." The underlying problem, he asserted, was that social studies teachers had bad values. By the year 2001, he wrote:

This assertion was not based on any data whatsoever. In contrast, the new AEI survey finds:

In the AEI survey, 60% of teachers think it is "absolutely essential" to teach students to "follow rules and be respectful of authority." Many fewer (37%) think it's absolutely essential to teach students "to be activists who challenge the status quo of our political system and seek to remedy injustices." Four out of five consider it absolutely essential to know the components of the Bill of Rights and to have "good work habits such as being timely, persistent, and hardworking." One in five think that education professors are overly critical of the US; eight percent think those professors are overly appreciative.

The AEI results are consistent with our own finding that many more young Americans recall studying "great American heroes and virtues of the political system” than "racism and other forms of injustice.” I don't necessarily object to the balance that exists in most American classrooms, but I do think leftists critics have more empirical basis for their complaints than conservatives have. If the ideological valence in our schools is wrong, it's not that students receive an overly cynical account of American history but rather than real injustices are ignored.

On most of the questions about values and goals, public school and private school teachers respond similarly. But their actual practices are different. For example, 86% of private school students say they expect their students to keep up with the news, compared to 44% of public school teachers. That could be in part because laws and policies that govern public schools make no place for current events. Forty-five percent of public school teachers in the survey--but only 9 percent of private school teachers--say that "social studies has been deemphasized" because of No Child Left Behind.

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April 16, 2010

a critical review from the left

Alan Singer has written a strong and (in its own way) valid critical review of my recent book with Jim Youniss, Engaging Young People in Civic Life. Singer begins:

There is definitely some truth to this. I'm pretty pro-regime. I don't like a lot of current policies and leaders, but I think the system is valuable, fragile, and liable to get worse if we don't care for it. I don't presume by the way, that all my co-authors would share that position; some are more radical. It does seem to me that preserving a system counts as "civic engagement," so I can't accept Singer's claim that we're "not about civic engagement at all." We address several varieties of it, but we don't define it as left-radicalism.

A major goal of the book is to benefit young people by giving them positive roles in their communities. We summarize research showing that such opportunities lead to better lives for the young people who participate. Although I also defend their right to protest and criticize, contributing to their communities pays off for them best--and that is a valuable outcome.

Singer writes:

This is all true, but four caveats apply. First, the valuable outcomes of such participation were the social changes they achieved. For instance, young people played an important role in overturning Jim Crow in the American South, and that was a great achievement. But it didn't benefit them directly. Doug McAdam shows in Freedom Summer that the elite, predominantly white college student participants who went to Mississippi in 1964 were worse off than a comparison group in terms of their happiness, tangible welfare, and satisfaction in the 1980s. They paid a steep price for their activism. Their sacrifice was commendable, but our book is mostly about something else: helping disadvantaged young people to do better in life.

Second, the outcomes of youth political participation are not inevitably good. European fascism had a strong youth component. The American Civil Rights movement had distinguished elders. If you want to change the world for the better, the key questions are: What kind of change is desirable? And how can we get it? Whether and how youth should participate is a subsidiary issue.

Third, student activism was relatively rare even at the height of what we call "the sixties." In 1968, according to the HERI College Freshmen Survey, just 29.9% of first-year college students frequently talked about politics. This was during a year of assassinations, a momentous presidential election, the draft, riots, and war. In 1970, 3.1% of college freshmen considered their views "far left." Another 33.5% considered themselves liberals, leaving the majority as moderate, conservative, or unwilling to say.

Finally, imitating the radical movements of the 1960s might be welcome, but it isn't what most contemporary young people seem to want. If your commitment is not to particular social outcomes but to authentic youth voice, you have to listen to their priorities. Of course, today's young people are diverse and disagree among themselves, but the proportion who want to move the country in a radically leftward direction is small. For example, in many of the programs that encourage young urban students of color to choose their own issue for activism, the stance they choose is basically defensive and--in a Burkean sense--conservative. They fight against school closings, privatization, and budget cuts. In other words, they seek to preserve the status quo. That may not be anyone's favorite kind of civic engagement (including theirs), but it surely counts.

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March 11, 2010

the Common Core State Standards and active citizenship

Educational "standards" are general guidelines for what should be taught and assessed. They can have the force of law, and policymakers can be held publicly accountable for them. I think the general concept of explicit educational standards is good, because deciding what should be taught is a core democratic task, a matter of establishing values and priorities. The standards that govern our schools should be transparent. Of course, bad standards are worse than none, and many actual state standards are weak, miscellaneous and arbitrary, hopelessly unrealistic, or otherwise misguided. If Texas continues on its course to rewrite its social studies standards, Texas children would be better off with none.

A related question is who should set standards, and for whose kids? Most of the nation's governors and state school superintendents are now proposing a set of uniform state standards that would be voluntarily--but widely--adopted. The goal is to provide one set of good standards (streamlined, thoughtful, and ambitious but not onerous). This effort threatens local autonomy and citizen participation, but also promises to improve existing standards in many states. And the authors have tried to reduce the damage by proposing truly "core" standards in only two disciplines--English/language arts and science math--while leaving much to be decided at the state and local level.

My professional concern is democratic education or education for active citizenship. From that perspective, it could be problematic that the proposed standards are not for social studies or civics. National standards for only English and math could narrow the curriculum even further. On the other hand, streamlining standards in those two disciplines could actually increase space and time for civics.

Besides, English skills are civic skills, if they are well designed. I have read the proposed standards for English/language arts and see many openings for improving civic education.

That seems to be an intention. On p. 2, the document says, "Students who meet the Standards ... reflexively demonstrate the cogent reasoning and use of evidence that is essential to both private deliberation and responsible citizenship in a democratic republic."

Some specific objectives seem especially useful for civic purposes. For example, students in grades 11 and 12 are supposed to "Analyze how various authors express different points of view on similar events or issues, assessing the authors’ assumptions, use of evidence, and reasoning, including analyzing seminal U.S. documents (e.g., The Federalist, landmark U.S. Supreme Court majority opinions and dissents)."

Another example is the standard that says, "Present claims and findings with relevant evidence that is accessible and verifiable to listeners, and use appropriate eye contact, adequate volume, and clear pronunciation." That is a very important skill for civic participation. By 11th grade, students are also supposed to "Cooperate with peers to set clear goals and deadlines, establish roles, and determine ground rules for decision making (e.g., informal consensus, taking votes on key issues, presentation of alternate views)."

The general thrust of the proposed Standards is to define outcomes, not methods or approaches, which are left to schools. But sidebars provide advice about methods, and sometimes that advice would be favorable to civic learning. For instance: "To become college and career ready, students must have ample opportunities to take part in a variety of rich, structured conversations—whole class, small group, and with a partner—built around important content in various domains."

The standards do not mandate a curriculum or syllabus, but they suggest readings, including "Letter from Birmingham Jail" by Martin Luther King, Jr. (1964) and America’s Constitution: A Biography by Akhil Reed Amar (2005)--good choices.

I wish education reform today emphasized constructive ways to get communities involved in education, and this effort is very different: top-down. Yet I would acknowledge that the ideas in the document are thoughtful, not burdensome, and sensitive to democratic values,

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December 14, 2009

we've got problems; you're the solution

I'll be talking today to a bunch of Boston-area high school students who have been part of Generation Citizen, a program that "emphasizes grassroots community building strategies and effective advocacy" by youth. These are some notes toward my speech. ...

We have serious problems as a country right now.

We have put 2.3 million of our own people in prison, far more than any other nation in the world. (China comes second with only 1.5 million incarcerated people.) That is incredibly expensive, and it represents millions of tragedies for all those convicts and their victims. Yet imprisoning all those Americans doesn't make us safe. Our homicide rate remains at least three times as high as the rate in any other wealthy nation in the world.

We spend more per kid on education than almost any other country, yet one third of our young people drop out before they complete high school. Considering that almost all stable and well-paying jobs today require more than a high-school diplomat, the dropout crisis is a human disaster.

We spend far more on health care per citizen than any other country in the world, yet unlike any other wealthy nation, we provide no health insurance at all for many of our people. Something like 45,000 Americans die every year for lack of medical care. Even if Congress passes a reform bill this year, we will still have the most expensive system in the world, with some of the worst outcomes for poorer people.

Most scientists believe that humans are causing the atmosphere to warm by taking stored carbon out of the earth in the form of oil, gas, and coal and burning it. The consequences of global warming may range from intense human suffering in the poorest parts of the globe, plus the extinction of animal and plant species, to a worldwide catastrophe. The United States burns more carbon per person by far than any country in the world except the tiny kingdoms of the Persian Gulf.

Plainly, our institutions do not work. Their failure is not just wasteful; it is deadly. They are not just broken; they are corrupt--making some people rich and comfortable while failing the rest of us. These are the institutions that we older people are handing over to you.

Can't we adults fix these institutions with better laws? For example, couldn't we slap a tax on carbon and cause people to burn less of it? Couldn't we use that money to make every American eligible for Medicare? Couldn't we reform criminal sentencing laws and cut the prison population?

Well, maybe--but I wouldn't count on us adults to solve these problems with laws and reforms.

First of all, we adults don't have the political will to do anything difficult. Just look how hard it is to get even a very modest health reform bill through Congress.

Second, we don't necessarily know the answers. I just mentioned some radical ideas, like enacting a huge new tax on carbon. In the past, a lot of great ideas--liberal, conservative and otherwise--have failed because they didn't turn out as expected in the real world. Especially when institutions are broken and corrupt, you can't count on even great laws to be implemented well.

Finally, we can't always use laws to make people and institutions work better. Some of our school systems have plenty of money, yet they still produce high proportions of dropouts. We could change our criminal penalties, but that wouldn't stop individuals from committing violent crimes and victimizing others. We can provide better health insurance by law, but if our doctors don't want to provide primary care to low-income residents, the insurance won't help.

To make schools and neighborhoods and hospitals work better, you have to get inside them and change people's hearts and minds--not reform just the rules or provide more cash.

You have to do this work because you have the motivation. You're the ones who may be living with climate change for the next 50 years and with a health system that has collapsed from uncontrolled costs. Just because you're young, you have different self-interests from older people, and if you don't advocate for your long-term interests, they will be ignored in favor of short-term gain.

You're the ones who have the knowledge and skills to tackle some of our major problems. For example, how are we going to understand and fix the causes of the high school dropout crisis unless we have high school students' help? You're the ones who know what it's like day-to-day in our schools.

And by the way, by participating in service, or activism, or civic engagement, you can gain skills and motivations and values that will serve you in life. Students who volunteer are dramatically less likely to drop out of high school than those who don't. So the simple act of being engaged can be part of the solution to a serious social problem.

Of course, we older people must back you up, guide you, and give you opportunities for service and activism. That's the point of City Year, where we're meeting, and Generation Citizen, which has recruited you. It's the point of our work at Tufts and CIRCLE.

We may be doing this work for you, but we're certainly doing it for ourselves as well. Strengthening youth civic engagement is our way to create a better form of politics for everyone. Projects like Generation Citizen provide alternatives to the politics we are saddled with today.

In general, we treat young people as baskets of problems or potential problems. But high-quality civic education treats young people as assets and contributors. That approach models a better way of treating citizens of all ages.

In general, we see education as the job of teachers and principals in schools (public or private). It’s a specialized task to be measured by experts. Success then boils down to passing tests. But education should be a community-wide function, the process by which a whole community chooses and transmits to the next generation appropriate values, traditions, skills, practices, and cultural norms. Civic education at its best crosses the lines between schools and communities and reflects a more inclusive definition of “education.”

In general, our politics is governments-centered. Liberals want the government to accept new tasks, such as health insurance; whereas conservatives believe that problems would be mitigated if the state were shrunk.

Governments are important, but they are not the only institutions that matter. Furthermore, a state-centered view of politics leaves citizens little to do but inform themselves and vote. Generation Citizen is an example of citizen-centered politics, in which people form relationships with peers, express their interests and listen to others, and then use a range of strategies, some having little to do with the state.

In general, our politics is manipulative. Experts—politicians, pundits, consultants, marketers, leaders of advocacy groups, and the like—study us, poll us, focus-group us, and assign us to gerrymandered electoral districts; they slice-and-dice us; and then they send us tailored messages designed to encourage us—or to scare us—into acting just how they want.

This is true of liberal politicians as well as conservative ones. It is true of public interest lobbies as well as business lobbies. It is true of big nonprofits as well as political parties.

Americans know they are being manipulated, and they resent it. They want to be able to decide for themselves what is important, what should be done, and then act in common to address their problems. They are interested in what other people think; they want to get out of what students call their “bubbles.” They want an open-ended, citizen-centered politics in which the outcomes are not predetermined by professionals.

Programs like Generation Citizen model open-ended politics. We don’t try to manipulate our students or neighbors into adopting opinions or solutions that we think are right—-at least, we shouldn’t. We give them opportunities to deliberate and reflect and then act in ways that seem best to them. In a time of increasingly sophisticated manipulative politics, these opportunities are precious.

Thank you for being part of this essential work. I'm looking forward to hearing about your projects and achievements, now and in the future.

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November 25, 2009

the Center for Civic Education audit

The Center for Civic Education, a national nonprofit organization that is mostly funded by the United States Department of Education, was recently audited. In USA Today, Matt Kelley's article is headlined, "Audit: Civic education group misused $5.9M." The Center is responding aggressively, disputing most of the accusations and asserting that the media coverage (which I think means only the USA Today story so far) "contain[s] numerous inaccuracies." Their full response is here (PDF).

The Center is correct to note that the "audit is the first step in a process that could take several months and will result in a resolution made by the Department of Education." We should hope that this process ultimately vindicates the Center and the charges turn out to be inaccurate or merely technical. I have read the full report but have neither the expertise nor the standing to assess it.

I am concerned that the fallout from this news may damage federal support for civic education, which is already very weak. Public schooling was originally established in the United States in order to prepare Americans for democratic participation. Even before the launch of universal public schools, during the founding era, Congress decided that since schools were "necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind," "education shall forever be encouraged." That statement is from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which provided for the creation of public schools in the new territories of the west. Founders like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Rush advocated more ambitious schemes of public education--not to improve students' employment prospects or to boost the economy, but to help Americans to participate in self-government.

Today, the federal investment in civic education is minuscule: about 0.06% of federal education spending. Civic education was absent from No Child Left Behind and has a marginal place in the federal bureaucracy. In schools and classrooms across America, actual civic education is often scarce, or dry and alienating, or reserved for more successful students (who also tend to be more affluent). There are severe gaps in opportunities for civic learning. Those gaps reinforce unequal outcomes. The voting and volunteering rates are twice as high for young people on a college track as for their non-college-bound peers.

Thus the federal government has a fundamental responsibility, not to provide civic education to American youth, but to help develop and encourage effective methods that can educate and motivate all students, including marginalized ones. At present, almost all of the federal investment for that purpose takes the form of subsidies to the Center for Civic Education. There are arguments for and against that strategy. I have argued against it, but I acknowledge that the Center's earmark has helped keep civic education alive in dark times and has created a durable, national network of civic educators. Whatever happens to the Center now, Congress and the Administration must increase--not drop--their support for civic education.

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November 10, 2009

service-learning, the Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad

The phrase "service-learning" seems to date from 1966. Nowadays, it means organized opportunities in schools or other educational institutions that combine community service with academic instruction as part of a curriculum or program of study. Since the late 1960s, the concept has been institutionalized with federal and state legislation, formal policies in schools and colleges, advocacy groups, and a body of scholarship. In 2008, approximately 35% of American high schools offered service-learning.

It is a much older idea, though. Buddhism, for example, emphasizes that true wisdom comes from serving others. "The Buddha himself bathed and clothed sick bhiksus [monks], cleaned their rooms, attended their daily routines, comforted their bodies and minds, and threaded the needle for aged bhiksus to relieve the pain of their poor eyesight" (Yun, 2008). The Buddha’s enlightenment came from his compassion, which grew from his service.

About 500 years later, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus uses the example of a woman who has washed his feet--an act of service--to teach his disciples about the forgiveness of sins (Luke 7:38).

The Arabic word sadaqah (which is etymologically and conceptually similar to tzedakah in Hebrew) refers to voluntary acts of charity or service that are both virtuous in themselves and signs of faith. In Islam, sadaqah can be educational. Abu Huraira, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad who died about 1200 years after the Buddha, reported that Muhammad said: "Verily what a believer continues to receive (in the form of reward) for his action and his virtues after his death is the knowledge which he acquired and then disseminated."

Even secular service-learning is a venerable tradition. Three famous examples from before World War II are Hull-House, the Chicago settlement founded by Jane Addams, which closely connected education to service; the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, which educated generations of labor and civil rights leaders using service experiences; and the Civilian Conservation Corps, which provided a whole curriculum along with its public work opportunities.

These days, I frequently argue in public discussions that the essential rationale for service-learning is moral; its moral premises deserve critical reflection; and empirical research that links service-learning to various outcomes (such as higher test scores) is mostly beside the point. I understand the tactical advantages of showing that what we value as an intrinsic good--in this case, service plus reflection--also pays off in standard utilitarian ways. But we shouldn't let our tactics obscure our fundamental commitments. Nor should we leave our moral commitments unchallenged, because there are critical responses to the ideal of "service."

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October 2, 2009

conservatism in the Obama administration

I'm interested in the following rule published recently by the Federal Corporation for National and Community Service:

The Corporation has been bitterly criticized for allegedly brainwashing young people to be supporters of President Obama's radical socialist agenda. But this rule couldn't be much more conservative. It would be a balanced policy, in my view, if it supported education on "heroes" and "military history" and on social movements and concepts of justice; or if it stressed the "importance of service" and the importance of social reforms and governmental programs. But it is almost entirely in the rightward side.

I'm glad to see that Corporation funds will be used for civic education. I think that the projects supported under this provision may be valuable. I'm only supportive, however, because I am personally open to relatively conservative approaches to civics. From a political perspective, I think it's noteworthy that the Obama Administration would publish such a conservative rule. The people who should be mad about the president's service agenda are not conservatives, but liberals.

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September 7, 2009

precedents for presidential speeches to schoolchildren

There is a huge controversy about whether President Obama should make a speech to students (and whether schools should show it). I don't dismiss the criticisms as merely partisan or paranoid; I can understand that direct speech by the nation's most powerful man would provoke concerns, especially for people who trust and admire this president much less than I do. Still, I favor the speech. If you assume it will have some political significance because an elected official will speak, you might consider the evidence that statements by authority figures do not persuade kids to agree, but rather provoke them to have critical conversations.* Too often, we keep civic and political issues out of schools because they offend some parents, and then we create zones free of civic discourse.

At the same time, Obama's speech is likely to have minimal political content. It will mostly be an exhortation by the head of state to study hard. Barack Obama has some potential to motivate students academically, which seems beneficial if it works.

Whatever you think about this particular case, you should know that there is absolutely nothing new about such an address. Before TV, presidents often issued proclamations to American school children that were intended to be read in all schools. For instance, Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed in 1907:

Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation to be read to American schoolchildren at the beginning of the school year, Sept. 15, 1917. He said, "every pupil in the United States can find a chance to serve our country. The school is the natural centre of your life. Through it you can best work in the great cause of freedom to which we have all pledged ourselves."

I assume many more such speeches could be found--I located these two in 15 minutes of web searching.

More recently, in the age of modern communications, Ronald Reagan made a speech that was nationally broadcast on TV and radio and intended for students in American classrooms. The first president Bush made a speech intended to be watched in schools that also boosted his administration's education policy. And the second president Bush provided "parents and teachers' guides" that encouraged students to read his biography and that of Dick Cheney.

We seem to have survived all this--not just the power of the presidency reaching into our humble schoolhouses, but also the use of instructional time for anodyne messages from our heads of state. If this particular controversy creates a precedent, it will not be the idea that presidents can address the nation's children. (They have done that for at least a century.) It will rather be the principle that irate citizens can block elected officials whom they don't like from being seen or heard in schools--and that would be another blow to civic education.

*E.g., Yates and Youniss find that a powerful dose of Catholic social doctrine does not convert predominantly Protestant African American students, but provokes them to reflect on their own values. McDevitt and colleagues (in a series of papers including this one) find that political debates in school stimulate critical discussions in the home. Colby et al. find that interactive political courses at the college level, although taught by liberal professors, do not move the students in a liberal direction but deepen their understanding of diverse perspectives.

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July 6, 2009

New Book: Engaging Young People in Civic Life

Youniss and Levine book cover

Vanderbilt University Press has published Engaging Young People in Civic Life, edited by James Youniss and me, with a forward by former United States Representative Lee Hamilton.

In the forward, Hamilton writes, "I can think of no task more important for the future of American democracy than teaching young people about our system of government and encouraging them to get involved in politics and community service. ... Engaging Young People in Civic Life is tough-minded, data-driven, and unsentimental. It is full of concrete policy proposals for schools, municipalities, service programs, and political parties. It offers all the appropriate scholarly caveats and qualifications. But at its heart, it is a plea to revive American democracy by offering all our young people the civic opportunities they want and so richly deserve."

Table of Contents

Foreword - Lee Hamilton

Introduction. Policy for Youth Civic Engagement - Peter Levine and James Youniss

Part I. Youth and Schools

Chapter 1. A "Younger Americans Act": An Old Idea for a New Era - James Youniss and Peter Levine

Chapter 2. Democracy for Some: The Civic Opportunity Gap in High School - Joseph Kahne and Ellen Middaugh

Chapter 3. Principles That Promote Discussion of Controversial Political Issues - Diana Hess

Part II. Political Environments: Neighborhoods and Cities

Chapter 4. Policies for Civic Engagement Beyond the Schoolyard - James G. Gimpel and Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz

Chapter 5. Civic Participation and Development in Urban Adolescents - Daniel Hart and Ben Kirshner

Chapter 6. City Government As Enabler of Youth Civic Engagement: Policy Design and Implications - Carmen Sirianni and Diana Marginean Schor

Chapter 7. Local Political Parties and Young Voters: Context, Resources, and Policy Innovation - Daniel M. Shea

Part III. Policy Models from Other Nations

Chapter 8. Youth Electoral Participation in Canada and Scandinavia - Henry Milner

Chapter 9. Civic Education in Europe: Perspectives from the Netherlands, Belgium, and France - Marc Hooghe and Ellen Claes

Chapter 10. Strengthening Education for Citizenship and Democracy in the UK - David Kerr and Elizabeth Cleaver

Conclusion. The Way Forward - Peter Levine and James Youniss

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June 30, 2009

reforming civic education

[11/25/09: Please also see my statement on the Center's federal audit.]

In Tampa, meeting with social studies teachers) For quite a few years, almost all of the federal government's investments in civic education have been earmarked for the Center for Civic Education (CCE). In 2009, the Center's earmark from the US Department of Education was $31.9 million. CCE spent most of those funds on "We the People," a high school government curriculum, and "Project Citizen," a curriculum for middle school students who study policy issues of their choice and develop responses. CCE provides free texts and materials and offers training for teachers.

The available evaluations suggest that students in CCE's programs learn the material. We don't know some other interesting facts about these programs, such as how many students they serve, the students' demographic profile, or how much the programs cost per student. We cannot compare CCE's impact or its cost-effectiveness against alternatives. Still, in the absence of public data on those matters, I will stipulate that CCE probably benefits the kids who experience its programs.

However, it is not the role of the federal government to finance curricula or materials that serve a small number of American kids, year after year. The federal government generally doesn't select particular textbooks that seem beneficial and then provide them free of charge to limited numbers of schools where the teachers happen to request them. Nor should it provide programs like "We the People" or "Project Citizen" on those terms. Thirty-two million dollars is not nearly enough money to make a significant difference for the national student population, if it is spent that way.

Instead, a minimum of $32 million should be spent on innovation and growth. Competitive grants should be given to school districts, schools, other local government agencies, nonprofits, colleges, publishing companies, software developers, and other firms that propose to develop and test new approaches to civic education or to increase the scale or quality of their efforts. Thirty-two million dollars would be useful seed money, and over time it could benefit most American kids.

The Administration is asking Congress to end CCE's earmark. That seems like the right thing to do, but the next step must be to create a competitive alternative run by the United States Department of Education. Congress and the Administration should fund civic education--the original purpose of American schooling--at a minimum of $32 million for the whole country. Criteria for competitive grants should include: innovation, rigorous evaluation, a potential to grow and survive without further federal funding, and a focus on engaging disadvantaged kids.

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June 24, 2009

service as a path to educational success

(San Francisco) I gave a presentation and moderated a session at the National Conference on Volunteering & Service yesterday. The topic was equity. But I'd rather describe a different panel, one that I attended as a member of the audience. The topic was service as a key to enhance student achievement. Angela Glover Blackwell was the moderator, and she started with an eloquent statement in favor of tapping students' energies to address social problems and thereby give them skills and motivations for learning. She said that all the excellent social programs she knows include a dimension of civic engagement, because programs work best when people "own" them. She cited Harlem Children's Zone as a model and referred to a new federal program, Promise Neighborhoods, that intends to replicate that model. Unfortunately, James Shelton III from the US Department of Education had to miss the panel at the last moment and so could not address that initiative.

Lisa Spinali, a friend of mine, talked about a large program that matches volunteers to schools in San Francisco (it is called San Francisco Volunteers, and she's the executive director). There has been a gradual shift from placing anyone with an interest in a school to identifying real needs and finding the right skills. Early on, San Franciscans might offer to teach macrame and guitar and would be sent to a classroom. Today, a corps of bilingual volunteers translates at parent/teacher conferences.

Anthony Salcito works for Microsoft. He used the formula that I associate with the Gates Foundation: rigor, relevance, and relationships. These "three-r's" are too often lacking in our schools. Salcito took the line that "service-learning" (combinations of academic study with community service) would help with rigor, relevance, and relationships.

Eric Schwartz from Citizen Schools made the case that the school day and school year are too short; there should be more learning opportunities for all kids during an expanded learning day. Citizen Schools creates a "second shift" of learning, with lots of interactive and fun projects. Volunteering comes into play in two ways. The "second shift" is substantially provided by unpaid volunteer adults and by AmeriCorps members. And the kids do, among many other activities, some service-learning.

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April 10, 2009

why states need new and different policies for democratic education

States have various policies in place that we might hope would encourage civic learning and engagement. Examples are curricular requirements (for social studies and/or civics classes), mandatory tests, and even the statewide service mandate in Maryland. We don't know much about how policies affect experiences at the classroom level, although we do know that certain experiences are valuable--notably, moderated discussions of controversial issues, well-conceived service projects, and challenging simulations of political or legal institutions.

My colleagues and I were able to combine information about all the extant state policies with evidence from the Knight Foundation's survey of 100,000 high school students. This survey gave us information about the kids' backgrounds, their experiences in classrooms and schools, and certain civic outcomes related to the First Amendment, such as valuing freedom of speech and using the news media. As expected, we found positive associations between classroom-level experiences and the outcomes we value. For instance, discussing controversial issues once again emerged as a beneficial opportunity. But we found no statistical links between state policies and classroom activities or students' outcomes.

I conclude that the states are basically barking up the wrong trees. We need new types of policies that would actually encourage the activities we want to see in classrooms. Mandating courses and testing students' academic knowledge of politics are worthy policies, but they don't get us the values and habits we want to see.

(See Mark Hugo Lopez, Peter Levine, Kenneth Dautrich, and David Yalof, "Schools, Education Policy and the Future of the First Amendment, Political Communication, vol. 26, no. 1, January-March 2009.)

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April 1, 2009

controversy in the classroom

University of Wisconsin Professor Diana Hess has published Controversy in the Classroom: The Democratic Power of Discussion (Routledge, 2009). The longitudinal study of high school students that is a major source of data for this book was partly funded by CIRCLE. Hess argues that planned, moderated discussions of controversial issues teach essential democratic skills. She provides research-based advice about how to define "controversial issues" and handle them in classrooms.

According to my blurb on the back cover:

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March 24, 2009

Arne Duncan on schools as community centers

I happen to be flying to Chicago today for a meeting on young people and civic engagement. The Chicago Public Schools were led by Arne Duncan until President Obama made him Secretary of Education. Many people who want to elevate democratic (or civic) education from its lowly status in the Department have hopes for Secretary Duncan. He was, for example, supportive of the Mikva Challenge, a great program that enlists Chicago teenagers in constructive political action and teaches them academic and political skills. In the clip below, he eloquently defends the idea of the school as a community center--also a concept with roots in Chicago, the city of John Dewey and Jane Addams.

I got this clip from the excellent Coalition for Community Schools, which has landed the Secretary for its conference.

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December 10, 2008

that narrow curriculum: it's not all about NCLB

Some time ago, we received a Ford Foundation grant to document the problem that almost everyone decried: because of the testing requirements in the No Child Left Behind Act (the comprehensive federal law related to pre-college education), schools were focusing on math and reading to the exclusion of social studies, art, music, physical education, and extracurriculars. All the data that supposedly demonstrated this problem came from current surveys of educational administrators or citizens, who were asked to say whether they believed curricula had narrowed since the passage of NCLB. They said yes.

We set out to provide supportive evidence by examining historical data about what teachers actually teach and kids actually study (based on contemporaneous surveys of students and teachers). What we found was much more complex and nuanced than our original hypothesis. Instead of "documenting" a problem, we showed that it didn't exist in the way we had expected.

I personally believe that the narrowing of the curriculum in the early grades is a significant problem. But it cannot be solved by lifting testing provisions in NCLB. It's a much broader and more complex issue.

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September 17, 2008

the civic potential of video games

Many adults who care about civic and ethical education are hostile to video games. We assume that gaming is a solitary, passive, violent activity, unrelated to issues in the real world. Actually, games vary enormously; some of the most popular ones are challenging simulations of democracy and social issues. And gaming is not always solitary; sometimes it is a social and cooperative passtime.

According to the most ambitious and careful study to date, "Civic Implications of Video Games," what matters is not whether or how much kids play video games. The question is which games they play and how they play them.

For example, there are strong positive correlations between playing the Sims and active civic engagement in the real world. This is perhaps not too surprising because the Sims requires active thinking about social issues in a fictional setting. In contrast, Halo is a "first-person shooter" game. The report doesn't say that it correlates with traditional civic activity, but Halo does involve collaborating with other players online. Those who collaborate with others online are also more engaged in active citizenship. For instance, they are much more likely to talk about elections. Thus even Halo has some civic potential. We need to promote and celebrate the best games, develop more like them, and use them in conjunction with school, community, and family activities.

The whole report is worth careful study. It was written by the Pew Internet and American Life Project in collaboration with the Civic Education Research Group at Mills College.

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June 10, 2008

simulating citizenship

It seems to be the season for new civic simulations. Yesterday, I introduced "Budget Hero" from American Public Media. The same day's New York Times covered Our Courts, a simulation promoted by Sandra Day O'Connor. ("Our Courts" does not seem to be ready to play quite yet.) Then this morning's Washington Post mentioned Peace Corps Challenge, a site that allows kids to pretend they are Peace Corps volunteers in the imaginary village of Wanzuzu. They get a local guide, Narina, with whom they tackle problems such as water contamination and girls' education.

Simulations are as old as Model UN and mock trial. Critics say that they convey the wrong message--that real citizenship begins only later on, when kids turn into adults. Simulations do not tap the actual assets of young people (such as their knowledge of their own communities) or allow them to address real problems. And most children will never grow up to fill the roles that they simulate in the game. For example, there is only one US Representative to the UN, out of 300 million citizens. The Peace Corps is more accessible, but it still turns away, I believe, three quarters of its applicants.

But games have advantages, too. They are absorbing, intellectually challenging, and cost-effective. They can be carefully constructed to promote particular lessons or skills that may then generalize to other domains. The Peace Corps simulation, for example, will be a success if it plants the idea of joining the real Corps or if players learn community problem-solving skills that they can use at home.

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May 16, 2008

the ABA division of public education

Chicago: I'm here for a board meeting of the American Bar Association's Division of Public Education. With 400,000 members, the ABA is the association of lawyers in the United States; its public education division runs programs and produces materials that contribute to public understanding of the law, rights, justice, the Constitution, and similar topics. Much of the Division's work is aimed at youth. Its director, Mabel McKinney-Browning, is one of the leaders in the movement for better civic education. She is, among other things, my successor as chair of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools. The Division's website provides a wealth of free materials on legal issues. As a member of the Division's advisory board, I advocate for the ABA to become a political force for civic education. So far, the ABA has resolved to "urge the amendment of the No Child Left Behind Act if reauthorized, or the adoption of other legislation, to ensure that all students experience high quality civic learning . . . [that] is regularly and appropriately assessed . . . and accorded national educational priority on a par with reading and mathematics." This position is now something that the Association's lobbyists in Washington are supposed to advocate.

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April 16, 2008

policies for youth civic engagement

Jim Youniss (a developmental psychologist from Catholic University) and I are editing a volume of essays on public policies that would help young Americans develop into active and responsible citizens. The various chapters defend policies for schools, political parties, local governments, and other institutions. We just received word that Vanderbilt University Press will publish the book, which means that it should be in bookstores--as they say--this winter. We could use a suggestion for a title. "Policies for Civic Education," the placeholder title, isn't very exciting and it probably suggests a narrow focus on schools.

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March 18, 2008

civic education without constraints

I have been asked to write a short article about my ideal version of democratic education. This is an opportunity to ignore the usual constraints: time, money, and political pressures. The venue for my article will be the CANDE newsletter.* I think I'll say:

We ought to treat students as citizens, giving them assignments that really matter and that stretch them both intellectually and ethically. Research shows that such opportunities boost their skills, knowledge, and habits. Besides, it is an ethical imperative to treat our fellow human beings--including our youth--as responsible members of the community.

Too often, I think, we ask students to investigate issues and problems that arise within the adolescent world--such as drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders, or their own stereotypes and prejudices--without asking them to evaluate and change the world that we have created for them. That world starts with the massive and powerful institutions that we have built to school them.

If, as in many school systems, the downtown bureaucracy consumes much of the funding, the most experienced and successful teachers gravitate to the least challenging schools, or the textbooks don't match the standards, kids will feel the consequences. Therefore, one ideal form of civic education would be research by students into how their own systems are run. They will probably find that the educational system bears some responsibility for any shortcomings or inequities. But they may also find fault with other actors, such as the government as a whole, the teachers' unions, the taxpayers, or parents and the students themselves.

As long as we are fantasizing (and ignoring all political constraints), we could imagine kids filing Freedom of Information requests, interviewing teachers off the record, attending public meetings, and taking photos of facilities. They could create spreadsheets to estimate the real expenditures of their school system, thereby learning valuable civic and business skills and obtaining power through information. When they uncovered waste and mismanagement, they could develop strategies for reform: alerting the media, filing class-action lawsuits, building public websites, or even working with political challengers. (I said I would ignore all real-world constraints!) They might also discover genuine choices, dilemmas, and constraints that confront their school district. Kids could promote discussion of these choices by providing background materials and convening public meetings.

In my ideal world, research and action on educational issues would continue over years and accumulate. Often, we ask classes to develop their own plans for service or community research, because we see choice as empowering. However, short-term projects rarely amount to much, and they don't replicate real civic work, which has to be cumulative to be successful. I would love to see new waves of students recruited into ambitious, ongoing programs that combine research, deliberation, direct service, and political action--all focused on their own school systems.

*Citizenship and Democratic Education (CANDE) is a special interest group in the Comparative and International Education Society. With scores of participants from around the world, the SIG provides a community for scholars, practitioners and graduate students concerned about the role of education in democracy. The CIES conference will meet in March in New York City, and anyone interested could participate in March, 2009, in Charleston, South Carolina. The SIG is chaired by Doyle Stevick, University of South Carolina, and editor (with Bradley Levinson) of two books of possible interest to people concerned about civics: Reimagining Civic Education: How Diverse Societies form Democratic Citizens (2007) and Advancing Democracy Through Education? U.S. Influence Abroad and Domestic Practices (in print, 2008).

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March 11, 2008

equity in civic education

Joe Kahne and I had an op-ed in Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle entitled "Voter turnout spotlights educational need." We used the turnout gap between college students and non-college-educated youth as an argument for more equal civic education. This is a link to the online version. According to a friend who lives near San Francisco, "the story was the whole front page of the 'Insight' section - complete with rear view picture of tattooed legs at the voting booth."

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September 27, 2007

the drawbacks of thinking about discrete educational programs

I gave a speech this morning (early this morning) to recipients of federal grants for service-learning. People in the audience run programs that meet the criteria of the Learn & Serve America program: they provide a certain amount of community service to each child, connect the service to academic work on the same topic, etc. This is the dominant way that we think about education today: as combinations of programs that can each be defined according to general criteria. Their average impact can then be measured (holding other factors constant), and we can decide to fund, require, reward, or test only the types of programs that we think work. See the What Works Clearinghouse for the quintessence of this approach.

This was also the approach we used in writing The Civic Mission of Schools report (2003), which identified six "promising practices" for civic education: classes on American history and civics; moderated discussion of current issues; extracurricular activities; student voice (i.e., honoring students’ opinions about school policies); simulations of legislation, diplomacy, and courts; and service-learning (i.e., combinations of community service with academic study). Since 2003, the evidence of positive effects from service-learning has increased.

However, as I told this morning's audience, there are several pitfalls to basing policy on service-learning, or any such "method," "approach," or "practice":

1. Practices that are institutionalized and defined receive the most support, even if they are not the most important. In our field, two of the "promising practices" in civic education get most of the attention: social studies classes and service-learning programs. I think that’s because they have budget lines (albeit too small) and job titles. In contrast, there's very little organized advocacy in favor of student voice in schools or extracurricular activities, because no one has a powerful self-interest in advocating for them.

2. There may be a risk that schools check off one or two of the promising practices and consider themselves to be meeting their civic missions. There is no research that allows us to say that particular combinations of practices work better than one program or another. But my gut tells me that you need a comprehensive approach. If, for example, you offer a single service-learning project but everything else about the school "teaches" the kids that they are not active and responsible citizens, it's hard to believe the service-learning course will work. Certainly, the effects of social studies classes and service-learning programs, while statistically significant, are not very large.

3. Such practices have to be done well. We should be concerned with quantity, quality, and equality. Quantity means how many kids get the opportunity. Quality means how good it is. And equality means how evenly is it distributed. There is a tendency for service-learning to degenerate into pretty meaningless exercises and for the high-quality opportunities to reach only the students who are bound for college.

4. Service-learning and other discrete educational programs need to be connected to much broader purposes or they will become ends in themselves. Service-learning can be connected to two ambitious movements:

  • The effort to redefine adolescence as a time of positive opportunity and contribution, not as a time of risk.
  • The effort to reform society by getting young people involved in changing institutions for the better.
  • If we merely offer service-learning because research studies find that it has positive effects on test scores or behavior, it will be stripped of its essential purpose and will degenerate. This is what happened, in my opinion, to the curricular innovations of the Progressive Era.

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    September 21, 2007

    civic skills/workplace skills

    America's Promise has identified five supports that every child needs to develop successfully: caring adults, safe places, a healthy start, effective education, and opportunities to help others. The America's Promise research team frequently releases interesting studies showing the positive consequences of having these five supports and the unequal degree to which we provide them.

    The latest published report (pdf), entitled "workforce readiness," identifies several skills that are essential for success in the workplace: decision-making, teamwork and leadership, communication, working with diverse people, computer skills, and money management. The Alliance's survey data show that most students report few opportunities to develop any of these skills; and outcomes (as assessed by the kids themselves) are unequal. For example, "fewer than half (46%) of the youth surveyed believe that they communicate well with others. African American youth were nearly twice as likely to report poor communication skills as white youth."

    For those of us who want schools to develop civic skills, these data provide an opening. Surveys cited by the Alliance show that business employers want workers who can communicate, collaborate, and make decisions in diverse groups. If we can harness that demand to persuade schools to teach such "soft" skills, we should be able to prepare students better for active citizenship. That will require more team projects in schools and less narrow preparation for paper-and-pencil tests.

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    August 30, 2007

    good news about NCLB

    Rep. George Miller, who leads the House Democrats on education policy and strongly backed No Child Left Behind, has issued draft language regarding reform of that Act. It says, in part:

    Title I, Part I, includes a new program to provide funds to low-income districts to support high quality instruction in music and arts, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, history, geography and physical education and health. Funds would support expanding the amount of instructional time in such subjects, developing high quality curriculum, providing essential materials and textbooks and partnering with community- based organizations to increase student learning in these subjects.

    This is a big deal in my little world of "civic ed." But I'd suggest it matters to all Americans, and the full argument goes like this:

    Children who have experiences to participate as citizens and learn about their communities and politics flourish better in adolescence and develop lasting habits of civic participation that benefit our democracy.

    ... but ...

    Current education policy revolves around the testing of reading and mathematics. As a result, schools, and especially those with low rates of academic success, are cutting civics, arts, and community partnerships.

    ... so ...

    We need incentives for schools--especially those with low academic performance, which usually enroll mostly poor kids--to provide civic opportunities. And this is what Mr. Miller appears to be trying to do.

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    June 19, 2007

    why service learning policy is stuck

    Service-learning (the intentional combination of community service with academic study) is a pretty significant phenomenon. According to CIRCLE's fact sheet, "As of February 2004, over 10 percent of all K-12 public school students and 28 percent of all K-12 public institutions are involved in some type of service-learning, affecting approximately 4.7 million K-12 students in 23,000 public schools." Yet the number of students who participate seems to have reached a plateau, and federal support (through the Learn & Serve America program) has declined.

    At last weekend's conference, the question was raised: Given the large quantity of research on service-learning, why hasn't policy improved? In short, why doesn't the research affect policy? Many of my colleagues felt that the problem lay with jargon-filled, overly complex research that isn't translated or disseminated effectively.

    That could be, but I have another explanation. Learn & Serve America supports an opportunity for schools and kids (i.e., service-learning) by funding it. That is a classic approach to educational policy, but it is not the dominant approach in our decade. The No Child Left Behind Act (which is just a name for the whole Elementary and Secondary Education Act) provides, mandates, supports, or authorizes very few opportunities at all. Instead, it defines outcomes and offers financial support (albeit, too little) for schools that reach those outcomes. (More on this distinction here.)

    The reason for focus on outcomes is a profound lack of trust for schools. Conservatives distrust public schools because they are state monopolies, and unionized to boot. But it is equally important that many liberals distrust schools for being corrupt, reactionary, and discriminatory. I have been harangued by liberals and civil rights activists who completely support the structure of No Child Left Behind (which, indeed, was drafted by liberals). They believe that if you give money to schools to provide opportunities, the money will be wasted or channeled to privileged kids, and the opportunities themselves will be distorted beyond recognition. Their strategy is to hold schools accountable for core outcomes, focusing especially on kids who are likely to suffer discrimination. They are happy to let schools choose their methods. If service-learning actually enhances student performance, fine. But they will not directly support service-learning or any other opportunity through federal policy.

    Very little of the existing research on service-learning is relevant to this situation, which is why (I believe ) it has so little impact on policy. To make a difference, the research would have to:

    a) Show that mandates or funding for service-learning on a large scale actually make a positive difference in typical and struggling schools (not merely in excellent "boutique" schools). Recent research by Davila and Mora and by Kahne and Sporte do find such positive effects.

    b) Show that the strategy of No Child Left Behind is flawed for its advertised purposes (raising student performance and equity). Or ...

    c) Figure out how to make schools, which are so deeply distrusted, more trustworthy by actually reforming them.

    [update, June 20: The Senate appropriations subcommittee seems to have approved a 5.4% increase in Learn & Serve America, by a voice vote. If that change survives, it will be the first increase for a long time.]

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    May 29, 2007

    discussing current issues in schools

    (Chicago) Surveys consistently find that most American students discuss current events in their classrooms and feel free to express their own views in these discussions. For instance, according to CIRCLE's 2006 survey, three-quarters of current students ages 15 to 25 reported that they had the opportunity to discuss current political and social issues in their high school courses. The vast majority (80%) reported that they were encouraged to form their own opinions regarding these issues.

    Scholars call the combination of time devoted to discussion plus tolerance of multiple perspectives an "open classroom climate." Experiencing an open classroom climate seems to predict all kinds of good outcomes (see PDF).

    Yet, as Diana Hess notes, classroom observations consistently find that the vast majority of time in social studies classes is devoted to lectures; real deliberations of current issues are exceedingly rare.

    How to square those two results? Hess suspects that students' reports of "open classroom climate" are misleading. I'd put it this way (speculating a bit): Most kids recall that at one time or another, their peers and a teacher discussed a controversial issue. Most students also think that their teachers are basically nice people. Therefore, if you (a high school student) say to Mr. Jones, "What did you think about Bush's speech last night?" or, "I'm really mad about the abortion decision," Mr. Jones will not bite your head off. He may even encourage your interest by saying something supportive--regardless of the position you take. He's probably interested in current events himself, if he teaches social studies. But he will soon call class to order and get back to the required material. If you are surveyed about the "classroom climate," you will say it was "open," even though there was no real discussion.

    Hess's most intriguing suggestion: Perhaps the modest positive correlations that we observe between open classroom climates and civic engagement are the combination of no effects from average classrooms and transformative effects from real deliberations. Her research-in-progress will test this hypothesis.

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    April 27, 2007

    four years after the "Civic Mission of Schools"

    (Wingspread, near Racine, Wisconsin) I'm here for a meeting of, which is working with various partners to try to construct a declaration or manifesto on behalf of the Millennial Generation. Young Americans from across the country will have a substantial role in creating this declaration; we are talking about how to organize the process. That question raises many complex and interesting issues. My head is so full of conflicting thoughts and echoes of other people's speech that I do not feel ready to write anything here.

    Instead, let me recommend the current issue of CIRCLE's newsletter (PDF here; or free copies are available by request to Dionne Williams). Four years ago, CIRCLE and Carnegie Corporation of New York published the report entitled The Civic Mission of Schools. Since then, we at CIRCLE have helped launch a lobbying campaign to fight for the report's recommendations and funded additional research to address questions that the report raised--using $1 million in research support from Carnegie. Our latest newsletter summarizes the policy changes and the new research, showing the benefits of commitment and sustained focus.

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    January 30, 2007

    benefits of service-learning and student government

    (Durham, NC): My colleagues and I argue that civic experiences in adolescence make young people into active, effective, and responsible citizens--participants in politics and civil society. However, most students, parents, teachers, administrators, and policymakers are less concerned about civic education than about getting kids successfully through high school and college. Their priorities are understandable. One third of adolescents do not graduate from high school, and those who drop out face very bad prospects. Thus I'm delighted to announce new research showing that two civic experiences--service-learning and student government--substantially increase the odds that students will complete high school and college on time. Presumably, we can enhance adolescents' motivations and sense of connection to school by giving them opportunities to serve and lead. (These are results from two new CIRCLE working papers by Alberto Dávila and Marie T. Mora.)

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    January 4, 2007

    the Maryland Civic Summit

    Annapolis, MD: We at CIRCLE helped to plan the State of Maryland's Summit on Civic Literacy, which occurred today. The Summit was funded and charged by an act of the State Assembly. There were representatives present from the State Senate and House, the judiciary (including the Chief Judge), the State Department of Education, and various key nonprofits. We heard a great keynote talk by my University of Maryland colleague James Gimpel, the lead author of one of the best books about how young Americans develop into citizens, Cultivating Democracy: Political Environments & Political Socialization in America (Brookings, 2003). Jim was quite eloquent about the enormous educational disparities between inner-city Baltimore and the suburbs of Washington, DC. See his book for vivid details.

    The afternoon's session was devoted to deliberation. We formed policy recommendations for the Assembly to consider. I moderated the discussion. Participants were supposed to vote electronically using touchpads, but the equipment didn't work. No matter; we still deliberated and recorded everyone's preferences. My two favorite ideas (but not the top vote-winners) were:

    1) Collect data about the after-school opportunities that are available to our students throughout the state. I suspect that this research would identify big disparities and thus make the case for significant legislation.

    2) On a pilot basis, create a few new positions in select schools. These new employees would connect students to external opportunities--field trips, special programs, internships, service projects, etc. (It can be very hard for outside institutions to navigate schools, and vice-versa; but museums, courts, colleges, environmental organizations, churches, and many other groups have educational opportunities to offer.)

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    November 9, 2006

    service-learning: why we do it, and how to show it works

    Below the fold is a speech I gave on November 1 at the annual convention of the grantees of Learn & Serve America, the federal program that supports community service tied to education. I used the opportunity to make some pretty broad points about evaluation (both pro and con) and about civic renewal in America.

    Service-learning: Why We Do It, and How to Show It Works

    Peter Levine, Nov. 1, 2006

    I have been asked to speak about the measurement and assessment of service-learning. Our work at CIRCLE [The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement] involves civic engagement. So I will first discuss civic engagement, then argue for measurement and assessment, and finally try to say what is so important about service-learning.

    CIRCLE recently released a major survey of young people that tracked 19 different forms of civic engagement--voting, volunteering, attending meetings, contacting the media, persuading other people about elections, boycotting, and more.

    I think it’s a pretty good list; but a list is not a definition. So what is civic engagement?

    Some people define it in terms of sectors. It’s civic engagement if you work without pay (which makes you a “volunteer”), or if you influence the government (then you’re a “voter” or an “advocate”), or if your paycheck comes from the government or a nonprofit organization (which makes you a “public servant”). In other words, you’re civically engaged when you’re outside of the market sector of society.

    I don’t think that definition can work. Newspapers fill a civic role; people who work for them are civically engaged. But newspapers are usually profit-making corporations that pay their reporters and editors. Harry Boyte notes that grocery store owners who display fruits and vegetables outside their businesses at night contribute civically by making city streets safer and more attractive.[i] When people boycott and “boycott,” we say they are civically engaged even though they are consumers who attempt to influence companies.

    I would drop talk of sectors. As a rough alternative, I’d say that “civic engagement” is any ethical way of addressing a public or common problem.

    But what’s a public problem? Is pornography a public problem? Maybe one person’s private behavior isn’t other people’s business. What about poverty? Some don’t think that’s their business or problem, either. Cancer? That does seem to be a public problem, but if it is, then scientific researchers must be civically engaged when they’re working in their labs. (And maybe they are.)

    The definition is essentially controversial, but I don’t think there’s any substitute for defining legitimate public problems and then saying that civic engagement addresses those problems. Participating in the debate about what is a public problem is itself a form of civic engagement.

    Why do we need civic engagement? Why can’t we leave governing to the government, and expect public institutions (such as schools) to provide public services? Why must many citizens participate?

    First, institutions work better when participation is widespread.

    For example, Robert Putnam has shown that schools work better in “states where citizens meet, join, vote, and trust [one another].” Putnam finds that such engagement is “by far” a bigger correlate of educational outcomes than is spending on education, teachers’ salaries, class size, or demographics.[ii]

    Second, social outcomes are more likely to be just when participation is equitable.

    We know that people who are better off participate more. Americans with family incomes under $15,000 voted at half the rate of those with family incomes over $75,000.

    And they get results proportionate to their participation. Larry Bartels has found that wealthy constituents have three times more influence than poor ones on U.S. Senators. In fact, Bartels could find no impact—zero impact—of people in the bottom third of the income scale on their own “senators’ roll call votes.”[iii]

    Third, some crucial public problems can only be addressed by people’s direct “public work”--not by legislation.[iv]

    Effective governments are capable of redistributing money and defining and punishing crimes. But rarely can governments reduce prejudice, change public attitudes toward nature, or deliver personalized care. Even when the state funds healthcare and higher education, the actual work is usually conducted by associations that can be more diverse, participatory, and sensitive than the state.

    Finally, broad civic engagement is necessary to support a healthy, democratic culture.

    Today, various groups of Americans criticize mass media and mass culture for being secular, materialistic, superficial, violent, sexist, and racist, and for undermining local, traditional, and minority cultures. These critiques are not always mutually consistent and may not all be valid. But it seems clear that people feel powerless to change mass culture, and that feeling demonstrates the tension between mass culture and democracy.

    A democratic group or community must be able to illustrate and memorialize its own values and present its own identity to outsiders and future generations of its own people. Many communities choose to display their identities through music, statuary, graphic design, narrative history, and other forms of culture. Their culture is idiosyncratic and local, because engaged, active people clump together in communities and associations, and each one takes on a distinct character through their work. Thus diverse culture is evidence of civic engagement.

    On the other hand, a homogeneous, mass culture arises when people are not heavily engaged. Mass culture is a threat to democracy, because when only a few people produce products that reach a mass market, they obtain great influence.

    If we want to improve public skills, attitudes, and habits relevant to liberal democracy, we must focus on youth.

    It is very hard to think of programs, projects, or even movements that have changed passive adults into active citizens.

    But many specific interventions aimed at youth have been found to work. The longest study that I know of has followed the high school class of 1965 until today. It was conducted by Kent Jennings and colleagues, and they found that participation in student government and other civic extracurricular activities in the 1960s still boosts people’s participation in civil society almost forty years later.

    More than a dozen other longitudinal studies of adolescent participation in community service have found positive effects as much as ten years later. And Doug McAdam’s rigorous study of the Freedom Summer voting-rights campaign shows that the activists’ experience in Mississippi (admittedly, an intense one) permanently transformed them.

    Also, whole generations have enduring civic characters, and that is probably because certain experiences were shared by many contemporaries in their adolescence. The he New Deal and World War II provided a form of “civic education” that caused members of the “greatest generation” to be engaged throughout their lives.

    Most small children are insulated from the big world of politics and current events. They don’t have to have opinions of it. But teenagers are confronted with politics, social issues, and civil society and must develop some kind of stance. They may be uninterested, which is the default, or they may choose critical engagement, enthusiastic support, or some other response. Once they have formed a basic orientation, it would take effort and perhaps some psychological distress to change their minds. Therefore, most young adults settle into a pattern of behavior and attitudes in relation to politics that lasts for the rest of their lives, unless some major shock (such as a war or revolution) forces them to reconsider. When adults change their political identities, the change usually results from voluntary experiences, not from exhortations or any form of mandatory civic education.

    It would be immoral to write off adults because they are much less malleable or “plastic” than adolescents and less susceptible to deliberate civic education. We should look for models, such as public meetings and innovations in the news media, than can enhance the civic engagement of people who have passed the age of 25 or 30. But it is especially important to invest in the democratic education of young people, since they will be permanently shaped by the way they first experience politics, social issues, and civil society

    Young people also do better in life if they engage civically. Volunteering and belonging to groups improves their academic performance, it lowers their pregnancy rate, it reduced their tobacco use, it keeps them engaged in school.

    The most ambitious explanation is the theory of Positive Youth Development, which says that kids flourish when they can use and develop their assets for valuable purposes. If we treat adolescents as a bundle of problems, we alienate some of them. But if we recognize that they have passion, energy, creativity, and their own social networks to contribute, we can help them to succeed.

    Many students drop out of high school because the assigned work is boring and because they lack personal connections to teachers. In a 2006 study of recent dropouts, more than half said they had satisfactory grades before they left school (“C” or better), but half said that classes were boring. There have been rigorous evaluations of programs that help students to work on community problems in collaboration with adults. For instance, an evaluation of the Quantum Opportunities Program studied randomly selected students and a control group. For about $2,500/year over four years, Quantum was able to cut the dropout rate to 23 percent, compared to 50 percent for the control group. QOP’s approach included mandatory community service

    What’s promising about service-learning as a form of civic education?

    As you well know, “service-learning” means an opportunity for students actually to serve in their communities while they study, discuss, or reflect upon their service. It thus implies a deliberate combination of academic study and practical work. Service-learning has a long heritage in the United States and in many other countries and cultures. To consider just one example, as early as the twelfth century in Europe, mendicant friars (monk) of the Franciscan and Dominican orders were expected to learn from serving the poor.

    In the mid-twentieth century there were some excellent programs that we would now call “service learning.” For instance, in the 1940s the City Planning Commission of a small city in the northeast of the United States asked social studies teachers to recruit high school seniors who designed and conducted community surveys, produced maps, and wrote recommendations.[v] Other settings for service learning (before that jargon was coined) included settlement houses like Hull-House in Chicago, the Appalachian Folk Schools (of which Highlander in Tennessee was most famous), and the Civilian Conservation Corps, which provided formal civic education programs connected to service work.[vi]

    The phrase itself seems to have been coined in 1967.[vii] Service-learning then developed into a movement, complete with dedicated journals, standards for “best practice,” several annual conferences, public and private funding sources, and networks of practitioners and advocates. In 1999, about half of high schools claimed to offer service-learning opportunities.[viii]

    In practice, both the service and the learning in “service-learning” differ widely. “Service” may mean tutoring, visiting elderly people, raising money for charity, cleaning up public spaces, taking soil or water samples for environmental monitoring, creating websites or broadcast segments, or organizing communities for political action. “Learning” may mean discussing a service experience in class, writing journal entries about the underlying issues, or even conducted elaborate research studies.

    There is no doubt that the best service-learning works. It not only enhances students’ skills and interests; it changes their fundamental identities so that they become—and see themselves as—active citizens.[ix] However, there is a range of quality in service-learning. I’ll return to that issue in a few minutes.

    What about measurement and outcomes?

    In my experience, a pretty high proportion of service-learning folks are at least somewhat skeptical of quantitative research and evaluation. I think I understand their concerns, and I certainly do not dismiss them.

    • Quantitative evaluation can miss subtle but important changes in youth that don’t show up in questionnaires.

    • Quantitative measures are usually generic--they would apply anywhere. For example, we test students on their understanding of the US Constitution, or we ask them about their interest in voting. These are generic questions. But a good service-learning project might have idiosyncratic results appropriate only for the local community in which it occurs. For example, students who clean up a river might learn about that river, not about the US Constitution. To learn about their own river is an achievement, but not one that would show up on generic evaluations.

    • Quantitative evaluation can be--or at least seem to be--highly technical, and therefore the business of experts. But service-learning is about allowing kids and other “ordinary people” to make their own decisions

    • Quantitative evaluation makes everything sound worthwhile only if it achieves outcomes for individual kids. We’re used to saying, for example, that if Head Start does not raise kids’ test scores when they reach high school, it’s a waste of taxpayers’ money. But regardless of what skills schools provide, they are also places where we spend some 18,000 hours of our lives. Some activities during those hours ought to be intrinsically satisfying or else meaningful because they benefit other people (or nature), not because they enhance students' individual skills. Schools are communities; and communities ought to include service—regardless of the impact on those who serve.

    A one-time service activity is very unlikely to make a lasting difference to the kids who serve. Does that make it pointless? Or might it be intrinsically or morally worthwhile?

    • Finally, many of us think that we should be accountable to ourselves and to those whom we know personally for doing our best work. A good student feels that kind of accountability; she does her best work for her own sake or to satisfy her teacher or classmates. She doesn’t work hard to get a good grade. Quantitative evaluation makes us accountable for achieving targets that can seem external or artificial--kind of like doing our schoolwork just to get a high grade.

    Those are valid points. Nevertheless, I am going to argue for using outcome measures and quantitative evaluation.

    In fact, I think we need to go all the way to experiments, whenever possible. In an experiment, you randomly assign some kids--or some classrooms or schools--to receive a service-learning activity, while others do not, and then you compare the outcomes. That is challenging to organize, but if we were all looking for opportunities to conduct experiments, those opportunities would arise. And by the way, you do not have to deny opportunities to some kids in order to create a control group for an experiment. Usually, you are not able to serve everyone anyway--at least not all at the same time. So, instead of accepting people on the basis of merit, or first come/first served, you can randomly draw from the applicant pool and thereby create an experiment.

    Here is my first argument for using experiments and other quantitative methods of assessing outcomes.

    Service-learning is marginal in our schools. It’s not uncommon any more, but it is peripheral. Consider the way that funding for Learn & Serve America, in real dollars, has shrunk over the past decade.

    This is because policymakers are not basically concerned about civic education, or moral education, or social and emotional learning. Even the most idealistic policymakers are mainly concerned that some of our kids cannot read or manage other basic academic skills.

    If you can’t read, you’re on course to drop out and then to face poverty, ill health, and violence—especially in the increasingly competitive economy of the 21st century. So our educational leaders want to identify kids at risk of failing in basic academic subjects and help them. That is where all the energy is, and the money, and the instructional time.

    Service-learning programs have sometimes been found to help keep kids in school and succeed academically. For instance, the Teen Outreach Program (or TOP) significantly reduced teen pregnancy, school suspension, and school failure. TOP was successful even though it focused “very little attention” on those problems. In other words, the staff did not directly address pregnancy or school-related problems. Instead, youth in the program were enrolled in service projects and asked to discuss their work in classroom settings. An average of 46 hours of service reduced teen pregnancy through the indirect means of giving young women valuable civic work to do.[x]

    The evaluation of TOP was strategically powerful, because it might persuade policymakers to invest serious resources (money and in-school time) in service-learning. They would use service-learning to get what they say they want—better outcomes for kids.

    But would other service-learning programs work as well as TOP? We need many more experiments to find out and to make the case to policymakers, even the most sincere and idealistic of whom are pretty skeptical.

    In short if we are interested in expanding and enhancing Learn and Serve America as a program, we should be experimenting as much as possible, using outcomes that powerful people care about—not civic skills, but pregnancy rates, incarceration rates, and dropout rates.

    Now a second argument for measurement and formal experimentation.

    Even for our own purposes of increasing civic engagement, we need measurement to tell us what policies would help.

    We can be sure that certain small-scale programs work. Our own eyes tell us that they are great when we observe these programs. But a policy is more than a small-scale program. By providing funds, or training, or incentives, or mandates--all different forms of policy--government could dramatically increase the quantity and quality of service learning. But would these policies work? We need hard data to know.

    In their 1999 evaluation of Learn & Serve America, Alan Melchior, Larry Bailis, and colleagues found that funded programs had positive effects on students’ civic attitudes, habits of volunteering, and success in school. However, their study was limited to “fully implemented” service-learning projects: ones that involved “substantial hours” of high quality service, “face-to-face experience with service recipients,” and opportunities for reflection. Out of 210 programs funded by Learn & Serve America that the evaluators had randomly selected for their study, only seventeen met the criteria for being “fully implemented,” even though the rest would certainly call themselves “service-learning” and had won grants in a competitive process.[xi] If all 210 programs had been included, it is not clear that the average effects of service-learning would have been positive.

    Alan and Larry collected their data almost a decade ago. The field has progressed since then. In a smaller study published in 2005, Shelley Billig and her colleagues found that average service-learning classes had slightly better civic outcomes than average social studies classes. Students who had been exposed to service-learning gained more knowledge of civics and government and felt more confident about their own civic skills, compared to a matched group of students who had taken conventional social studies classes. However, service-learning did not raise students’ sense of their own community attachment or their own ability to make a difference. (Possibly, the difficulty of the projects they undertook turned them into pessimists about achieving social change). In any case, these average results concealed very large differences between the best and worst service-learning. Some classes in Billig’s small study that claimed to use service-learning produced notably poor results.[xii]

    If a school superintendent asked me what the research shows about service-learning, I would say that it supports creating a small competitive grant program and providing voluntary opportunities for teachers, such as seminars on how to organize a community-service project. The research does not, at this time, support allocating a lot of district money for service-learning or setting a high target for the rate of student participation.

    In this respect, service-learning is different from social studies teaching. Standard social studies classes are much more common than service-learning programs and are probably distributed in a normal curve, such that classes of average quality are most common. We can tell from exam results that the average-quality classes have positive effects. Thus I would advise a superintendent or a state official to mandate social studies classes for all students (while also trying to support or weed out the worst teachers and reward the best ones). I would regard service-learning differently: as something to be cherished and admired when it is done well, but not to be rapidly expanded.

    It’s not especially good news for Learn & Serve America if the existing research does not support the case for widespread adoption. But that’s partly because we don’t have much research that’s rigorous enough to persuade skeptics. Maybe more studies would reveal that some particular categories of service-learning are so good that they should be massively expanded, generously funded, or even mandated by law.

    I have offered some arguments in favor of measuring and assessing service-learning, as a strategy for increasing its quality and quantity. Let me end by emphasizing what’s really at stake. We are not doing this because we want more dollars for Learn & Serve or bigger numbers of kids in service-learning programs.

    We are doing it because service-learning represents an alternative to politics and education as we know them.

    • In general, we treat young people as baskets of problems or potential problems and rely upon surveillance, assessment, diagnosis, discipline, and treatment to stop them from acting in damaging ways. But service-learning embodies the alternative approach of "positive youth development," which recognizes that young people have special assets to contribute to their communities—to repeat: creativity, energy, idealism, and a fresh outlook. If they are given opportunities to contribute, they develop in healthy ways. Major recent policies (such as the No Child Left Behind Act) have very little to say about providing positive opportunities for youth. Service learning is a powerful positive opportunity

    • In general, our politics is state-centered. Liberals want the government to accept new tasks, such as health insurance; whereas conservatives believe that problems would be mitigated if the state were shrunk.

    Governments are important, but they are not the only institutions that matter. Furthermore, a state-centered view of politics leaves citizens little to do but inform themselves and vote. Service-learning epitomizes a citizen-centered politics in which people form relationships with peers, deliberate about their common interests, and then use a range of strategies, some having little to do with the state.

    • In general, our politics is manipulative. Experts--politicians, pundits, consultants, marketers, leaders of advocacy groups, and the like--study us, poll us, focus-group us, and assign us to gerrymandered electoral districts; they slice-and-dice us; and then they send us tailored messages designed to encourage us--or to scare us--into acting just how they want.

    This is true of liberal politicians as well as conservative ones. It is true of public interest lobbies as well as business lobbies. It is true of big nonprofits as well as political parties.

    People know they are being manipulated, and they resent it. They want to be able to decide for themselves what is important, what should be done, and then act in common to address their problems. They want an open-ended, citizen-centered politics in which the outcomes are not predetermined by experts.

    And service-learning, at its best, is open-ended politics. We don’t try to manipulate our kids into adopting opinions or solutions that we think are right—-at least, we shouldn’t. We give them opportunities to deliberate and reflect and then act in ways that seem best to them. In a time of increasingly sophisticated manipulative politics, these opportunities are precious.

    Finally, a point about civic education in an imperfect political system. Maybe it isn’t reasonable to expect our young people to hold positive civic attitudes and be actively engaged. Citizens (both young and old alike) may rightly shun voting when most elections have already been determined by the way district lines were drawn. They may rightly ignore the news when the quality of journalism, especially on television, is poor. And they may rightly disengage from high schools that are large, anonymous, and alienating.

    Civic education that teaches people to admire a flawed system is mere propaganda. We must prepare citizens for politics, but also improve politics for citizens. Neither effort can succeed in isolation from the other. Educational curricula and programs, including service-learning, if disconnected from the goal of strengthening and improving democracy, can easily become means of accommodating young people to a flawed system.

    However, political reform is impossible until we better prepare the next generation of citizens with appropriate knowledge, skills, habits, and values. Students should feel that they are being educated for citizenship, but also that they can help to reform and revive democracy.

    That’s what we are gathered here to do. Evaluation and measurement are just means to that end. They are powerful means, but they are not our goal--and neither is service-learning. Our goal is to renew American democracy.



    [i] Boyte and Kari, Public Work {full citation}

    [ii] Robert D. Putnam, “Community-Based Social Capital and Educational Performance,” in Diane Ravitch and Joseph P. Viteritti, eds., Making Good Citizens: Education and Civil Society (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), pp. 69-72.

    [iii] Larry M. Bartels, “Economic Inequality and Political Representation” (2004, revised 2005), at

    [iv] Harry C. Boyte and Nancy N. Kari, Building America: The Democratic Promise of Public Work (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996).

    [v] James Beane, Joan Turner, David Jones, and Richard Lipka, “Long-Term Effects of Community Service Programs,” Curriculum Inquiry, vol. 11, no. 2 (Summer 1981), pp. 145-146.

    [vi] Gary Daynes and Nicholas V. Longo, “Jane Addams and the Origins of Service-Learning Practice in the United States,” Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, vol. 11, no. 1 (Fall 2004), pp. 5-13; Melissa Bass, National Service in America: Policy (Dis)Connections Over Time” (CIRCLE Working Paper 11) and “Civic Education through National Service” (CIRCLE Working Paper 12).

    [vii] Peter Titlebaum, Gabrielle Williamson, Corinne Daprano, Janine Baer & Jayne Brahler, “The Annotated History of Service-Learning: 1862-2002” at

    [viii] Almost half of US high schools offer service-learning programs. See U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, “Service Learning and Community Service in K-12 Public Schools” (Sept. 1999), table 1. Since the term was coined ca. 1990, it is difficult to measure the increase since the 1980s, but it appears to be very dramatic.

    [ix] Youniss and Yates, pp.

    [x] Evaluation by J.P. Allen et al, summarized in Eccles and Gootman, eds., pp. 181-184.

    [xi] The Center for Human Resources, Brandeis University, Summary Report, National Evaluation of Learn and Serve America School and Community-Based Programs (Washington, The Corporation for National Service, July 1999), pp. 1, 2, 3..

    [xii] Shelley Billig, Sue Root, and Dan Jesse, “The Impact of Participation in Service-Learning on High School Students’ Civic Engagement,” CIRCLE Working Paper 33, pp. 26-7.

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    August 10, 2006

    a cautionary tale

    John Dewey and his contemporaries in the Progressive Era invented many of the standard forms of civic education, including social studies courses, student governments, service clubs, scholastic newspapers, and 4-H. Dewey rightly argued that "Formal instruction ... easily becomes remote and dead--abstract and bookish, to use the ordinary words of depreciation." He favored experiential education for democracy and tried to "reorganize" American education "so that learning takes place in connection with the intelligent carrying forward of purposeful activities." A good example would be a school newspaper, which requires sustained, cooperative work, promotes deliberation, and depends upon perennial values such as freedom of the press.

    As Diane Ravitch writes in The Troubled Crusade (1983), Dewey saw educational reform as a "vital part" of a broader "social and political reform movement" that aimed at richer and more equitable political participation. Thus Dewey and his fellow progressives sought better civic education while they also battled corruption, pursued women's suffrage and civil rights, and launched independent political journals for adults. They saw civic experiences in school as means to help students begin participating in the serious business of democracy, which also needed to be reformed.

    Unfortunately, the specific innovations that the progressives introduced into schools--scholastic newspapers, debate clubs, social studies courses, and the like--could easily lose their original connection to democracy. When that purpose was forgotten or ignored, extracurricular activities and social studies classes became means to impart good behavior, academic skills, or "social hygiene"--not ways to begin changing society.

    Soon, Ravitch writes, "the progressive education movement became institutionalized and professionalized, and its major themes accordingly changed. Shorn of its roots in politics and society, pedagogical progressivism came to be identified with the child-centered school; with a pretentious scientism; with social efficiency and social utility rather than social reform; and with a vigorous suspicion of 'bookish' learning."

    Today, there is a serious risk that we could repeat the same pattern. For example, excellent service-learning programs enhance students' civic capacity: they increase skills and motivations for self-government. The best programs allow students to tackle problems that really matter, sometimes provoking controversy. But service-learning is being widely advocated as a way to reduce teen pregnancy or drug abuse and as an alternative to "bookish" academic curricula for students who are not succeeding in school. There is merit in both rationales, but there is also the danger that service-learning will be watered down and depoliticized. To use Ravitch's terms, service-learning can be shorn of its connection to politics, made overly "child-centered" (instead of academically challenging), and used to enhance "social efficiency" (e.g., to lower rates of delinquency) as recommended by behavioral scientists.

    The alternative is to recall that schools are public spaces in which young people begin the serious business of self-government and have early opportunities to pursue social change. Although it is helpful to consult scientific studies, students and other community members must decide for themselves what social causes they favor. (No "pretentious scientism"!) Service-learning, civics courses, and extracurricular activities are useful means for democratic education, but they are not ends in themselves. The point of the whole business is democracy, which begins in school and not after graduation.

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    June 6, 2006

    textbook politics

    A paper by Sharareh Frouzesh Bennett confirms my unsystematic impression of the leading high school textbooks for civics and government (pdf). Bennett analyzes the big three, which are published by Prentice Hall, Glencoe, and Holt. She finds that they present American government as a well-organized system for implementing what the people want. Voting is by far the most commonly mentioned form of civic engagement, which makes sense if the government is basically satisfactory, and majority-rule is the essence of democracy. Since the existence of profound disagreement is not acknowledged in any of the leading textbooks, little is said about tools available to electoral minorities, such as "boycotts, lawsuits, protests, and civil disobedience." Because the government is portrayed as capable of handling all public issues, virtually nothing is said about citizens' roles in social movements, voluntary associations, and (more generally) civil society. "The Holt text refers to civil disobedience during the section on the civil rights movement and indicates that the method was used in the past to defy laws that were thought to be wrong." Overall, politics is portrayed as a formal system that offers a limited role for citizens (basically, voting). It is not described as a struggle over contested issues.

    If young people study the three branches of government and the Bill of Rights, but they are not made aware of any particular controversies about economics, war, or moral issues, I would predict no impact on their interest in politics. Surveys tend to find a positive relationship between taking a civics class and political participation. Perhaps that relationship is misleading. (Maybe students who are already interested in politics are more likely to take civics classes.) Or perhaps courses really boost interest in politics--but no thanks to the textbooks.

    Bennett's findings are consistent with our surveys, which find that most students are taught about the excellence of the American political system. Only 5.2% recall studying "problems facing the country today." Contrary to the fears of conservatives (who dwell on scattered anecdotes about leftist teachers), most students receive a civic education that is "conservative" in a particular sense. Textbooks do not introduce them to right-wing ideas, such as reducing the size of government or banning abortion. That's because textbooks contain few political ideas of any kind. Instead, students are taught that the status quo is desirable and uncontroversial--a form of conservatism that both right and left should reject.

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    May 10, 2006

    a 10-point plan for civic renewal

    Major trends have worked against civic participation in America, although a network of dedicated people has struggled to improve our civic life. Fortunately, new national political leaders will emerge between 2006 and 2008. We can hope that at least one of them makes "empowerment" a leading theme in his or her campaign. Or perhaps candidates will speak of "true democracy at home and abroad." Or they could revive populism, along the lines Harry Boyte proposed here on Monday. In any case, the big message would go something like this:

    American citizens have been pushed out of all our major institutions--the government, schools, health care, environmental protection, crime prevention, city planning, and the news media. That's partly because lobbyists and other rich people have bought too much power. Sometimes it's because courts and bureaucracies have made decisions that should be left to communities. Often it's because experts claim too much authority. Although we should respect the expertise of lawyers, economists, regulators, and professional educators, these people don't know right from wrong better than anyone else. Nor do they understand everyone's needs and experiences. We must find ways to tap the energy, creativity, and values of many more Americans if we are going to address our communities' problems.

    To be credible, any such message must be backed up with reasonably specific policy proposals. Appropriate policies might include the following:

    1. Putting communities back in control of education. Whole communities educate kids, not just the professionals who work in k-12 schools. Although the No Child Left Behind Act has some merits, it is making standardized tests all-important, thus empowering the testing industry and preventing communities from deciding what they value most. Often, people prize moral and civic education as well as, or above, reading and math scores. The Act needs to be revised so that a core of reading, math, and language-arts remains, yet communities can set other priorities and participate in educating their children.

    2. Reforming Congress to check the power of professional lobbyists. Although basic ethics rules are important and must be enforced, the core problem is that lawmaking is not transparent. Therefore, well-placed insiders can obtain too much power. Dramatically simplifying the tax code on a revenue-neutral basis would reduce opportunities for special interests to seek special breaks. (The current code is about 10,000 pages long and generates about 4,000 pages of forms.) Congress should also create a bipartisan commission to simplify and regularize the Code of Federal Regulations, which is about 150,000 pages long.

    3. A national service agenda. Instead of cutting or trimming the federal voluntary service programs (Americorps, Senior Corps, Peace Corps, and others), Congress should expand their funding while keeping them competitive and demanding evidence of results from grantees. The next president should also name a highly respected and famous director for USA Freedom Corps who will not only seek adequate funding for all the service programs, but also fight to give responsible, meaningful roles to volunteers. FEMA, the Defense Department, and all agencies should use talented and experienced volunteers to their maximum capacities.

    4. Preparing a new generation of active and responsible citizens. People form attitudes and habits related to civil society when they are young and keep them for the rest of their lives. But civic education has been cut in most school systems, and there are too few opportunities for young people to learn through service and extracurricular activities. Congress should double the small Learn & Serve America program that provides competitive grants for service-learning. Congress should also preserve the Education for Democracy Act (slated for elimination in each of President Bush's budgets) and add a new competitive program for school districts that agree to implement district-wide civics programs and collect outcome data. The next president should name an interagency task force on youth civic development that includes the Defense Department, Homeland Security, and the federal research agencies as well as the departments specifically concerned with education and service.

    5. Rethinking government service. According to the Partnership for National Service, we would need about 800,000 new federal employees to replace those who are eligible to retire before 2010. Even if we assume that the federal workforce can be cut deeply, we still need about half a million recruits. Many younger people do not view the federal civil service as a desirable lifelong career. To meet the desires of college students as documented in a recent poll, we must create federal jobs that feel less bureaucratic and more interesting. (Raising pay is much less important.) This requires a new round of "reinventing government." This time, the goal of reinvention should not be to improve customer service but to find ways to make stints in the civil service feel more creative, collaborative, and rewarding.

    6. Charter schools: The charter-school movement is not a Trojan Horse designed to undermine public education. Charters are public schools--funded with tax dollars and authorized by the government. In fact, they stand to rejuvenate public education by giving more people opportunities to serve and innovate in the public sector. If there is any way to create the equivalent of charters in other areas of federal governance, that would be worth an experiment. An example might be community development corporations (CDC's) that can manage development assistance.

    7. A public voice in policymaking. Hurricane Katrina showed that the federal government is not ready to convene citizens to deliberate when we face crucial public decisions. Yet we know how to bring diverse citizens together in face-to-face and online settings and harvest their views. The federal government should create an infrastructure that is ready to organize public deliberations when needed. This infrastructure would consist of: standards for fair and open public deliberations, a federal office that could coordinate many simultaneous forums and collect all their findings, and a list of vetted contractors that would be eligible to convene public deliberations with federal grants.

    The Wyden-Hatch "Health Care that Works for All Americans Act" would organize large-scale public deliberations on what to do about the 41 million Americans who lack health insurance. It would be a great pilot for future conversations on other issues.

    8. Increase public deliberation through e-rulemaking. Only paid experts can possibly follow the thousands of new federal regulations that are proposed and enacted each year. That means that special interests that can afford expertise have a huge advantage, and many actual regulations benefit them alone. Proposed regulations should be issued in a searchable online format with threaded comments, opportunities to vote on the importance of proposals, and opportunities to add links and explanations. Then citizens will sort through this mass of material and add value.

    9. New public media. Without government help, citizens are creating more diverse and interactive forms of media--mostly online--to counteract the consolidation of the commercial news and entertainment businesses. But there are big holes that require federal attention. First, radio has dramatically consolidated. The FCC must support alternatives, including low-power radio. Second, it is increasingly difficult for people to make fair use of copyrighted media in documentaries, hip-hop, and other cultural forms that rely on borrowing. Congress must protect fair use. Third, most kids aren't learning sophisticated media skills. They must have opportunities to work with media in schools. Television is hardest to improve, but the next president should at least appoint leaders of public broadcasting who are willing to create an entirely new model to replace the current system of using membership drives and corporate advertising to support marginal programs.

    10. Incorporate immigrants into civic life: The many millions of new immigrants need civic skills and opportunities. The INS citizenship exam should be revised so that it is not longer a set of trivia questions but instead tests the knowledge that new citizens will actually need to participate. Immigrants, legal or illegal, should have access to education and service opportunities.

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    April 26, 2006

    more on teaching patriotism

    On Crooked Timber, Harry Brighouse has replied to my previous post about patriotism in schools. He is skeptical, mainly on the (reasonable) ground that patriotism causes or excuses partiality toward one's fellow citizens, and such partiality is particularly problematic when one's nation happens to be very rich and powerful. Harry's post prompted several substantive replies: a good discussion in the Crooked Timber comment field. I'd only add that I feel somewhat awkward defending patriotic education in schools. I still think the arguments in favor outweigh those against, so I'm not ready to strike my flag (so to speak). However, instilling patriotic sentiments is far from the center of my own work and concerns. Apart from anything else, there is no evidence that young people lack patriotism, whereas there is plenty of reason to fear that they lack the confidence, skills, and interests necessary to be effective participants in democracy.

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    April 24, 2006

    "a concerted pushback"

    (En route to Baltimore and New York City) In general, Americans are abandoning our obligation to prepare young people for active and responsible citizenship, but there was good news last week for those who want to revive civic education--which includes service opportunities, extracurricular activities, and whole-school reform as well as social studies classes.

    Last Monday, as I already reported, the national advisory committee of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools met. C-Span broadcast speeches by its co-chairs, former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and L.A. School Superintendent Roy Romer. The same meeting also generated a very nice syndicated column by David Broder entitled "Saving Democracy, Pupil by Pupil." Broder writes that "No Child Left Behind," the major education reform act of 2002,

    was not intended to push other subjects out of the schools, but, Romer said, 'Quite often, the tests that states will use for No Child Left Behind will be only on certain core subjects, such as language arts and math and sometimes science, and school systems, if not careful, can be warped into the neglect of social studies.'

    O'Connor and Romer are the national spokesmen for a concerted pushback against these trends calling itself the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools ( Twenty-nine national organizations and a dozen notable private individuals have lent their support; foundation money as well is behind it.

    Those 29 organizations and "notable" individuals then met on Friday for the semi-annual steering committee meeting of the Campaign, which I chaired. We approved a white paper on high school reform that we had debated and revised for more than a year. I like the final version, which the Campaign will soon release. We also discussed our position on No Child Left Behind, without (as yet) reaching agreement about what should be done.

    On Thursday night, Justice O'Connor attended the annual awards dinner for Streetlaw, an organization that provides curriculum and training for civic education. In giving an award to Mrs. Cecilia Marshall (Justice Thurgood Marshall's widow), she noted her own work for the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools and said that "civic education is very much part of my concern these days." So it must be: in addition to giving the two speeches I mentioned above, the Justice also met privately with David Broder and chaired a meeting of the American Bar Association's committee on civic education--all in one week.

    I had the honor of giving Streetlaw's Educator Award to an excellent high school teacher from Brooklyn, Patrick McGillicuddy. He has achieved remarkable success in a school reserved for students who have dropped out or been expelled from other institutions. He teaches the whole of American history as a series of mock trials. The kids not only have fun and learn debating skills; every one of them passes the New York State American History Regents Exam.

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    April 17, 2006

    from the periphery to the center

    Today was the public launch of the advisory committee of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools. The committe's co-chairs, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Gov. Roy Romer (now the head of the Los Angeles public schools), spoke at the National Press Club along with Senator Harris Wofford, Judge Marjorie Rendell from Pennsylvania, and others. C-SPAN and Fox News had cameras running; I don't know whether or when the event will actually air.

    Senator Harris Wofford told an amusing but telling anecdote. To paraphrase: When he ran for the Senate in 1990, his consultant, James Carville, told him that his worst fear was that Mr. Wofford would go off talking about Gandhi, service-learning, and civic education. Those topics are "out there on the periphery," Carville told his client, but no one can make them central. Indeed, Wofford famously won his Senate seat on a health-care platform. But there are ways to weave themes of active citizenship and democratic renewal into mainstream politics, I believe.

    I also spoke. I'm having computer problems the last few days, but when I'm able to retrieve the file with my speech, I'll paste it here (below the fold).

    Like the high school debater that I never was, I'm going to speak for a short time and try to put a lot of facts before you quckly. I will leave it to our distinguished leaders to make a more eloquent case for civic learning. However, I do believe that the facts and data tell a pretty strong story.

    First of all, what is civic learning? It includes classes on civics, government or history. Data show that these courses significantly increase students knowledge and skills: for example, the skill of interpreting news articles and speeches. As we said in the Civic Mission of Schools report, "if you teach them, they will learn."

    Courses probably enhance students behavior as well as their knowledge. In a poll that the Campaign sponsored along with several partners, young people who had taken a civics class were twice as likely to vote, twice as likely to follow the news, and four times more likely to volunteer for a campaign than those who had never taken civics courses. That doesn't mean that a single course doubles voter turnout; the relationship is a bit more complicated than that. But the most careful analysis suggests that courses have significant effects on students' behavior. And courses certainly boost knowledge and skills.

    In short, courses are valuable, but civic learning means more than courses.

    It also includes extracurricular activities, such as student government, school newspapers, and other organizations that give kids experience in working together, addressing problems, and managing voluntary groups. A very careful study that has followed the high school class of 1965 right up to the present finds that participating in extracurriculars increased kids civic engagement when they were young, and the difference is still evident in their behavior nowforty years after they graduated. No program has ever been found that has nearly as much effect on adults' participation in civil society. If we want to revive America's communities, restoring high school extracurriculars looks like one of the very best strategies.

    Community service is another element of civic learning. When service is connected to academic study, we call it "service-learning." Careful studies show that high-quality service-learning enhances civic values and habits of service and sometimes changes kids fundamental identities so that they see themselves as active citizens, even years later. Again, no program for adults has been shown to have that kind of impact on identities. We have our best shot at enhancing volunteerism if we give people opportunities to serve while they are young.

    Kids also learn by discussing current events. Discussion boost knowledge and interest, especially when students feel that the conversation is genuinely open to diverse perspectives. Its especially valuable for kids to use and discuss the news media, and even to create their own newspapers, broadcast news shows, and news-oriented websites.

    If a school is organized as a true community in which students feel they belong and can play a constructive role, that too is a form of "civic learning" that is proven to have positive effects on students skills and interests.

    Students can also learn through simulations, such as moot courts, model UN, and (nowadays) elaborate computer games that are designed for educational purposes.

    If anyone's been counting, you'll notice that I have listed six "promising practices" for civic learning. Students need a rich combination of all six practices.

    Unfortunately, civic education is in decline, which is why our movement has been launched and has attracted such distinguished supporters.

    Perhaps the clearest drop is in extracurricular activities. Leaving out sports, the rate of participation in school clubs appears to have fallen by half since the 1960s.

    In the last three years, the No Child Left Behind Act has shrunk the whole social studies curriculum, including American history and American government courses, which had been pretty resilient until recently. The Center for Education Progress recently found that 71% of school districts had cut back time on other subjects to make more space for reading and math. History, Geography and Civics were the most heavily cut areas of the curriculum.

    Finally, I would like to note that civic education is especially important for disadvantaged kids, although unfortunately they get less of it. According to a big federal study in 1998, students of color and students from low-education families were the least likely to experience interactive social studies lessons that included role-playing exercises, mock trials, visits from community members, and letter writing.

    After 1970, we lost two courses from the standard curriculum: 9th-grade "civics" (which used to teach about the role of citizens in their communities) and "problems of democracy" (which involved discussions of current events). What was left was 12th grade American government and some advanced courses on social sciences. Those are useful classes, but many students drop out before they can take them. We know that one third of all youth and half of African American and Latino adolescents do not finish high school.

    The result of these disparities in opportunities is evident when you look at outcomes. High school dropouts are much less engaged in their communities and in politics than people who completed high school. And the disparities start early. If one compares two groups of 14-year-oldsone group has highly educated parents and many books in the home and intends to attend college, and the other group lacks those advantagesthe better-off group already displays far more political knowledge and is three times more likely to expect to vote.

    I hope this brief summary of research helps make the case that civic learning--defined with appropriate breadth--is a powerful way to enhance American democracy and that we need to do it better.

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    April 11, 2006

    should we teach patriotism?

    I suspect that most Americans want schools to teach patriotism. However, experts on education are, for the most part, leery of this goal. In a CIRCLE working paper (pdf), William Damon writes:

    The final, and most serious, problem that I will mention has to do with the capacity for positive feelings towards one society, with a sense of attachment, a sense of affiliation, a sense of purpose fostered by one's role as citizen. This is an emotional capacity that, since the time of the ancient Greeks, has been known as patriotism. This is not a familiar word in most educational circles. In fact, I would guess that patriotism is the most politically-incorrect word in education today. If you think it's hard to talk about morality and values in schools, try talking about patriotism. You really can't get away with it without provoking an argument or, at the least, a curt change of subject. Teachers too often confuse a patriotic love of country with the kind of militaristic chauvinism that 20th Century dictators used to justify warfare and manipulate their own masses. They do not seem to realize that it was the patriotic resistance to these dictatorships, by citizens of democratic republics such as our own, that saved the world from tyranny in the past century and is the best hope of doing so in the future.

    Along similar lines, Harry Brighouse quotes a British official, Nick Tate, who complains about his experience on a UK curriculum committee: "There was such a widespread association between national identity, patriotism, xenophobia, and racism that it was impossible to talk about the first two without being accused of the rest." The Civic Mission of Schools report (a consensus statement that I helped to organize) does not use the word "patriotism."

    The question can be divided into two parts: Is patriotism a desirable attitude? Is it an attitude that should be promoted by public schools? I would answer both questions with a qualified yes.

    Patriotism is love of country. For most people, it is not a passionate and exclusive and life-altering love. It's more like love for a blood-relative, perhaps an aunt. It doesn't involve choice. It doesn't require a tremendously high estimate of the object's intrinsic qualities. (You may admire Mother Theresa more than your Aunt Theresa, but it is the latter you love.) It implies a sense of obligation, including an obligation to understand and be interested in the object. It also implies a sense of entitlement: you can expect your own aunt, or your nation, to help you in ways that others need not. Both the obligation and the entitlement arise because of a sense of identification, a "we-ness," a seeing of yourself in the object and vice-versa.

    I think that people should love large human communities in this way. You may put your family first, but to love only them is too exclusive. Loving all of humankind is good, but it doesn't mean the same thing as love for a concrete object. For instance, you cannot have an obligation to know many details about humankind.

    A nation works as an object of love. One can identify with it and feel consequent obligations and entitlements, including the obligation to know its history, culture, constitution, and geography. Love for a country inspires, enlarges one's sympathies, and gives one a sense of support and solidarity. I would not claim that these moral advantages follow only from loving a country. One can also love world Jewry, one's city, or one's fellow Rotarians. But love of country has some particular advantages:

    1. Patriotism promotes participation in national politics, including such acts as voting, joining national social movements, litigating in federal court, and enlisting in the military or serving in the civil service. In turn, broad participation makes national politics work better and more justly. And national politics is important, because national institutions have supremacy. A system that devolved more power to localities would need less national participation, and hence less patriotism. But it would have its own disadvantages.

    2. Patriotism is a flexible concept, subject to fruitful debate. Consider what love of America meant for Woody Guthrie, Francis Bellamy (the Christian socialist author of the Pledge of Allegiance), Frederick Douglass (author of a great 1852 Independence Day speech), Nathan Hale, Presidents Lincoln and Reagan, J. Edgar Hoover, Saul Bellow, or Richard Rorty. All these men believed that they could make effective political arguments by citing--and redefining--patriotic sentiments. One could argue that their rhetoric obfuscated: they should have defended their core values without mixing in patriotic sentiments. Brighouse complains (p. 105) that patriotism can be "used to interrupt the flow of free and rational political debate within a country." But I am not so much of a rationalist as to believe that there exist stand-alone arguments for all moral principles. Rather, reasonable political debate involves allusions and reinterpretions of shared traditions; and patriotism provides a rich and diverse store.

    3. It seems to me that a democratic government can legitimately decide to instill love of country, whereas it cannot legitimately make people love world Jewry or the Rotary Club. Local democratic governments can also promote love of their own local communities, and that is common enough--but it doesn't negate the right of a national democracy to promote patriotism.

    4. Patriotism has a role in a theory of human development that Damon has elsewhere defended. (See W. Damon. "Restoring Civil Identity Among the Young," in Making Good Citizens, ed. D. Ravitch and J. Viteritti. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001). This theory holds that being strongly attached to a community or nation as a child increases the odds that you will care enough about it to scrutinize it critically when you become a young adult. In my own case, as a young boy in the Nixon era, I thought G-Men were heroes and wanted to be one. Now I am a strong civil libertarian. I believe my initial attachment to the US has kept me from simply withdrawing from it, like Robertson Jeffers. However, I'm just one person--and a white, male, middle-class person who has been treated justly by the state. Damon's developmental theory may not work as well for children who face evident injustice.

    Thus, as a moral sentiment, patriotism has benefits. However, it can also encourage exclusivity or an illegitimate preference for one's fellow citizens over other human beings. Like all forms of love, it can blind you to faults. These problems are serious, but they can be addressed. After all, some forms of American patriotism identify our particular nation with inclusiveness and the fair treatment of foreign countries.

    The teaching of patriotism in public schools raises special problems, several of which Harry Brighouse explores in chapter V of On Education. Here I mention the two most serious concerns:

    1. Legitimate government rests on the sincere or authentic consent of the governed. If the state uses its great power over public school students to promote love of itself, that consent is inauthentic. Brighouse (p. 109): "the education system is an agent of the state; if we allow the state to use that system to produce sentiments in the populace which are designed to win consent for it, it thereby taints whatever consent it subsequently enjoys as being non-legitimizing."

    This is a serious concern, requiring constant vigilance; but I believe it should be put in context. Schools do not have a monopoly on students' attention. They compete against politicians (many of whom love to denounce the national government), religious leaders (who believe that true sovereignty is God's), and big commercial advertisers (who promote consumption instead of political engagement). Within schools there are plenty of teachers and administrators who hold negative views of the national government. I think the dangers of brainwashing are slight, and it's helpful to present students with an ideal--patriotism in its various forms--that they and their teachers can argue with.

    2. A patriotic presentation of history requires whitewashing and distorting the truth about what happened and why. For instance (p. 112) "an educator who has anywhere in her mind the purposes of instilling love of country will have a hard time teaching about the causal process which led up to the Civil War in the US." That's because pursuit of the truth requires one to consider that the Civil War was perhaps faught for economic reasons--a dispiriting thought for a patriot. Likewise, Brighouse thinks that textbooks depict Rosa Parks as a "tired seamstress" instead of a "political agitator" because the former view (while false) better supports patriotism (p. 113).

    Obviously, Brighouse has a point--but a close look at his cases shows how complicated the issue is. For example, as an American patriot, I find it deeply moving that Rosa Parks was trained at the Highlander Folk School, whose founder, Miles Horton, was inspired by Jane Addams, whose father, John (double-D) Addams was a young colleague and follower of Abe Lincoln in the Illinois State Legislature. That's only one lineage and heritage in the story of Rosa Parks. It is, however, a deeply American and patriotically "Whiggish" one--and it's truer than the clich of a tired seamstress. It connects Parks to the profound patriotism of Lincoln (who redefined the American past at Gettysburg) and the pacifist patriotism of Jane Addams.

    In any case, why study Parks at all unless one has a special attachment to the United States? If the issue is simply nonviolence, then one should study Aung San Suu Kyi, who is still very much alive and in need of support. I think every young American should know the true story of Rosa Parks, and my reasons are essentially patriotic.

    To put the matter more generally: history should be taught truthfully, but it must also be taught selectively. There is no such thing as a neutral or truly random selection of topics. Selecting topics in order to promote patriotism seems fine to me, as long as the love-of-country that we promote is a realistic one with ethical limitations.

    Finally, the causal mechanisms here are a little unpredictable. Ham-fisted efforts to make kids patriotic can backfire. But rigorous investigations of history can make kids patriotic. I always think of my own experience helping local students (all children of color) conduct oral-history interviews about segregation in their own school system. They learned that people like them had been deliberately excluded for generations. They took away the lesson that their schools were worth fighting over, that kids could play an active role in history, and that their community was interesting. One girl told a friend from the more affluent neighboring county, "You have the Mall, but we have the history!"

    Again, the purpose of our lesson was not simply to teach historical truth and method, but also to increase students' attachment to a community. We were like educators who try to inculcate patriotism, except that we were interested in a county rather than the nation. Our pedagogy involved helping kids to uncover a history of injustice. The result was an increase in local attachment. The moral is that truth and patriotism may have a complex and contingent relationship, but they are not enemies.

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    March 31, 2006

    worth reading

    Three items from my email inbox support the case for democratic education:

    1. Nick Bromwell, an English professor, reviews some important recent books about democracy in the Boston Review. He argues that democracy requires a balance of liberty and equality. Although Americans value and understand liberty, we are in danger of losing political equality. Not only are our political institutions actually unfair, but people are forgetting what it feels like to have an equal share in politics. "To resonate with Americans, equality must be something they feel, something they believe in because they sense its presence within them. This means that what we might call the 'subjective' dimensions of democracy must be excavated. Democracy is not just a set of institutions, a cluster of marble buildings, and a collection of laws. Democracy is about self-government, and therefore the nature of the self stands at its center." The books under review are full of practical suggestions.

    2. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Gov. Roy Romer have become co-chairs of the National Advisory Board of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools. As a debut, they published a joint op-ed in the Washington Post on March 25. It's now behind the Post's dreaded firewall, but this is my favorite part: "We need more and better classes to impart the knowledge of government, history, law and current events that students need to understand and participate in a democratic republic. And we also know that much effective civic learning takes place beyond the classroom--in extracurricular activity, service work that is connected to class work, and other ways students experience civic life. ... We need more students proficient in math, science and engineering. We also need them to be prepared for their role as citizens. Only then can self-government work. Only then will we not only be more competitive but also remain the beacon of liberty in a tumultuous world."

    3. The O'Connor/Romer op-ed is timely given this major new finding from the Center for Education Policy: "71% of school districts reported that they have reduced instructional time in at least one other subject to make more time for reading and mathematicsthe subjects tested for NCLB purposes. In some districts, struggling students receive double periods of reading or math or bothsometimes missing certain subjects altogether." One administrator whom CEP surveyed wrote that No Child Left Behind "has torn apart our social studies curriculum. We are raising tomorrows leaders and [NCLB is] forcing us to fill their heads with math facts that do not make them better leaders or help students make choices."

    [Thanks to Scott Richardson, here's a link to the Post op-ed.]

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    March 15, 2006

    higher education: civic mission & civic effects

    The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and CIRCLE today released a consensus report entitled "Higher Education: Civic Mission & Civic Effects." The report was jointly written by 22 scholars representing the fields of political science, developmental pyschology, sociology, economics, philosophy, research on higher education, and women's studies. The scholars met last fall in a conference that we jointly organized with our friends at the Carnegie Foundation. I then managed the drafting-and-revising process that led to the new report. It does the following:

  • emphasizes that colleges and universities have a civic purpose
  • explores profound changes in the civic mission of universities since 1900
  • examines that somewhat ambiguous evidence about the effects of college attendance on students' civic knowledge and behavior
  • recommends certain approaches to teaching civic education at the college level
  • discusses some obstacles to civic education, and
  • outlines an agenda for further research
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    March 3, 2006

    why there is no "civics" discipline, and why that matters

    I'm writing a book about youth civic development and have just drafted a section entitled "There is no academic discipline of 'civics.'" In that section, I argue that the lack of such a discipline has negative consequences for research and teaching in schools and universities. It prevents us from understanding participation as well as we should and keeps us from preparing young people to be active and responsible participants. I explore some reasons that political science, literature, history, and moral philosophy--all defended from time to time as civic disciplines--do not meet the need today. Finally, I suggest two responses: trying to create a new discipline, or distributing the study of citizenship throughout schools and universities. Both approaches are problematic. (The excerpt is pasted below.)

    Today, there is no academic discipline devoted to questions about what people can and should do as participants in a democratic society. The lack of such a discipline has practical consequences. First, it means that questions about citizens' roles are not addressed with sufficient seriousness by academic scholars; there is not enough research about citizenship. To be sure, many universities try to enhance their own students' civic capacities by providing opportunities for service-learning, internships, foreign study, and dialogues with other students about issues and conflicts. However, these opportunities are not tightly connected to research or included in the courses that are most highly valued in the disciplines. Separating service from teaching and research has hurt all three activities, in my opinion.

    Second, high schools emulate college curricula, because schools are under intense (and perhaps appropriate) pressure to prepare their students for college attendance. If there is no college discipline of civics or citizenship, then high schools naturally provide classes on political science (under the name of "government") and history. These are academic disciplines for which PhDs are awarded. Those who defend civics or social studies as well as political science and history have difficulty answering Diane Ravitch's question: "What is social studies? Is it history with attention to current events? Is it a merger of history, geography, civics, economics, sociology, and all other social sciences? Is it a mishmash of courses such as career education, ethnic studies, gender studies, consumer education, environmental studies, peace education, character education, and drug education? Is it a field that defines its goals in terms of cultivating skills like decision making, interpersonal relations, and critical thinking, as well as the development of 'critical' attitudes like global awareness, environmental consciousness, multiculturalism, and gender equity?"[1]

    Courses on civics and social studies were launched during the Progressive Era, to prepare youth for active citizenship. They grew at the partial expense of history, which some saw as an overly academic discipline. In 1915, the US Bureau of Education formally endorsed a movement for "community civics" that was by then quite widespread. Its aim was "to help the child know his communitynot merely a lot about it, but the meaning of community life, what it does for him and how it does it, what the community has a right to expect from him, and how he may fulfill his obligations, meanwhile cultivating in him the essential qualities and habits of good citizenship."[2] In 1928-9, according to federal statistics, more than half of all American ninth-graders took "civics." That percentage had fallen to 13.4 by the early 1970s. In 1948-9, 41.5 percent of American high school students took "problems of democracy," which typically involved reading and debating stories from the daily newspaper. By the early 1970s, that percentage was down to 8.9. Nevertheless, the percentage of high school students who have taken any government course has been basically steady since 1915-1916.[3]

    Although the historical data have gaps, it appears most likely that "civics" and "problems of democracy" have disappeared since 1970, while American history, world history, and American government have either stayed constant or grew. Today, Advanced Placement American Government is the fastest-growing AP exam. As Nathaniel Schwartz notes, the old civics and problems of democracy textbooks addressed their readers as "you" and advocated various forms of participation.[4] Today's American government texts discuss the topics of first-year college political science: how a bill becomes a law, how interest groups form, how courts operate. Social studies arose during the Progressive Era, when philosophical pragmatists argued for a curriculum of practical relevance to democracy. Social studies and civics seem to be waning at a time when academic rigor is valued and colleges increasingly set the tone for high schools.

    There is nothing wrong with studying political science in high school or college. In fact, the discipline began with an explicit civic purpose. The American Political Science Association, founded in 1903, created four successive high-profile committees on civic education before World War II. John William Burgess, a major political scientist who died in 1931, saw his discipline as a way to "prepare young men for the duties of public life."[5]

    Today, however, while political science remains a challenging and important discipline, it has limited relevance to questions about what a citizen can and should do. That is partly because a certain logic has led political science to focus on the most powerful forces: nations, Congress and the presidency, major lobbying groups, and social classes. In the 1950s, Harold Lasswell, reflecting a view that had by then become standard, wrote: "Political science, as an academic discipline, is the study of the shaping and sharing of power." Hence serious political scientists should not worry much about citizens as agents: "The study of politics is the study of influence and the influential. ... The influential are those who get the most of what there is to get. ... Those who get the most are the elite; the rest are the mass."[6] Of course, there have since been numerous studies of local political institutions and of ordinary people's political behavior, but far fewer than one would find in a discipline devoted to citizenship.

    Second, political science (as its name implies) is an empirical and not a normative discipline, which means that it says little about what citizens should do as opposed to what they actually do. Although political science began in the late nineteenth century with ambitions to enhance civic engagement, that aim began to seem unscientific by 1920. In 1901 (before political science took its modern form), President Hadley of Yale had argued, "A man may possess a vast knowledge with regard to the workings of our social and political machinery, and yet be absolutely untrained in those things which make a good citizen."[7] He argued for civic education that would enhance motivations, virtues, and skills as well as knowledge. By 1933, President Hadley's view was giving way to that of University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins, who announced, "'education for citizenship' has no place in the university."[8]

    A 1971 report by the American Political Science Association argued that the role of political education was to provide "knowledge about the 'realities' of political life." According to this report, most high school civics instruction imparted "a nave, unrealistic, and romanticized image of political life which confuses the ideals of democracy with the realities of politics."[9] However, a curriculum focused narrowly on the "realities" of politics (emphasizing power, corruption, inequality, and conflict) will not inspire many students to participate, or give them the skills to do so.

    A third reason for the gap between political science and citizenship is the problem of expertise. While political scientists differ about the appropriate role of "ordinary people" in a modern democracy, the very concept of a sophisticated, highly quantitative discipline devoted to politics suggests that expertise is important. At times, political scientists have drawn rather undemocratic lessons from this suggestion. For instance, the APSA Committee of Seven's argued in 1914 that citizens "should learn humility in the face of expertise."[10] This is a form of civic education that is unlikely to promote active participation.

    Things may be changing. The APSA's Strategic Planning Committee recommended in 2000 that the central purposes of the Association should again include "preparing citizens to be effective citizens and political participants." However, it remains to be seen how much impact that unmistakable shift in the Association's rhetoric will have on actual research and teaching in political science.[11]

    Political science is not the only discipline that first arose with the explicit purpose of enhancing citizenship, only to abandon that goal. In ancient Greece, the more responsible Sophists founded the rigorous study of literature as a means of civic education for participants in republican self-government. Protagoras, for example, invented the study of grammar through his careful, analytic reading of literature. He claimed a moral and civic purpose for this work. In Plato's dialogue that bears his name, Protagoras says, "The works of the best poets are set before [children] to read on the classroom benches, and the children are compelled to learn these works thoroughly; and in them are displayed many warnings, many detailed narratives and praises and eulogies of good men in ancient times, so that the boy may desire to emulate them competitively and may stretch himself to become like them."[12]

    Many centuries later, in Italian republics that somewhat resembled Protagoras' polis, people who called themselves "humanists" began to teach literature as a form of civic education (in preference to theology and moral philosophy, which were seen as other-worldly and non-politicalbetter for clergy than for citizens). Humanists argued that stories depicted virtuous actions in concrete situations, while story-tellers exemplified eloquence, which was an essential skill for civic participation. As Francis Bacon observed, "it is eloquence that prevaileth in an active life."[13]

    However, today mainstream modern literary criticism is not a discipline devoted to civics, and there are major two reasons for that. First, in an effort to become professional, most critics have abandoned the practice of looking for explicit moral value in stories and are instead interested in issues more amenable to expert judgment, such as influence, genre, form, and rhetoric. As R.S Crane wrote in the 1930s, "The essential thing about the understanding to which the literary critic aspires is that it is understanding of literary works in their character as works of art. It is not criticism but psychology when we treat poems or novels as case books and attempt to discover in them not the art but the personality of their authors. . It is not criticism but ethical culture when we use them primarily as a means of enlarging and enriching our experience of life or of inculcating moral ideas. Criticism is simply the disciplined consideration, at once analytical and evaluative, of literary works as works of art.[14]

    Second, modern critics are unlikely to endorse "eulogies of good men in ancient times," in part because the values of anyone from distant times and places do not seem directly relevant to the issues of our own era.

    History has also been advanced as a civic discipline. Like literature, it provides examples of virtue and vice and eloquent narration. Leibniz thought its purpose was to "teach wisdom and virtue by example": a commonplace view by his time.[15] In his famous address as president of the American Historical Association in 1931, Carl Becker said, "The history that lies inert in unread books does no work in the world. The history that does work in the world, the history that influences the course of history, is living history, that pattern of remembered events, whether true or false, that enlarges and enriches the collective specious present." That is a civic justification of historical research (and Becker advocated research that was careful and rigorous).[16] Historical evidence and examples do seem essential for thinking about what citizens can and should do; but I am not sure that history is generally studied or taught with that purpose in mind.

    Finally, moral philosophy has sometimes been seen as civic discipline. However, modern professional philosophers mostly work at the largest or the smallest scale. That is, they either consider the overall structure of a society and the definition and distribution of fundamental rights and essential goods; or they consider decisions and dilemmas faced by individuals in private (e.g., whether abortion is moral). There is also important work on professional ethics, including the ethics of politicians and judges. But there is much less philosophical work on the ethics of participation in civil society or political movementsthe topics of most relevance for citizens.

    It is intriguing to imagine a formal academic discipline of "civics." It might combine philosophical investigations of citizens' role in communities, historical research into changing forms of civic participation, empirical studies of political behavior and political development, formal study of rhetoric, and analysis of the frequent challenges that confront active citizens, such as free-rider problems in voluntary associations. However, it seems unlikely that such a discipline will develop in the near future. The alternative is to try to infuse many (or all) existing academic disciplines with civic themes and to organize educational institutions so that they draw their members' attention to the study and practice of citizenship. But that, too, is a tall order. There is a risk that civics, if diffused across the curriculum and research programs of a school or university, will never amount to much.


    1. Diane Ravitch, "A Brief History of Social Studies," in James Leming, Lucien Ellington, Kathleen Porter-Magee, eds., Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong? (Thomas B. Fordham Institute, 2003).

    2. Arnold Brown, The Improvement of Civics Instruction in Junior and Senior High Schools (Ypsilanti, MI: Standard Printing Co., 1929), p. 28).

    3. Richard G. Niemi and Julia Smith, "Enrollments in High School Government Classes: Are We Short-Changing Both Citizenship and Political Science Training?" PS: Political Science and Politics, vol. 34, no. 2 (June 2001), p. 282.

    4. Nathaniel Schwartz, "How Civic Education Changed (1960 to the present), MS paper, quoted with the permission of the author. However, observers have consistently complained that schools devote "the time almost entirely to a detailed study of the structure of government, with extremely little attention to the problem of behavior as a citizen." This is from Charles Clinton Peters, Objectives and Procedures in Civic Education (New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1930), but cf. Arnold R. Meier et al., A Curriculum for Citizenship: A Total Approach to Citizen Education (New York: Greenwood Press, 1969), pp. 134-41.

    5. Quoted in R. Claire Snyder, "Should Political Science Have a Civic Mission? An Overview of the Historical Evidence, PSOnline, June 2001

    6. Harold D. Lasswell, Power and Society (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1950), p. xiv; Laswell, Politics: Who Gets What, When, and How (New York: Meridian Books, 1958), p. 13. Citations from Saunders, p. 16 (check orginals).

    7. Arthur Twining Hadley, "Political Education," in The Education of the American Citizen (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1901), p. 135.

    8. Quoted in William Talcott, "Modern Universities, Absent Citizenship? Historical Perspectives." CIRCLE Working Paper 39 (2005), p. 2.

    9. Quoted in Schwartz.

    10. APSA Committee of Seven (1914, p. 263, quoted in Stephen T. Leonard, "'Pure Futility and Waste': Academic Political Science and Civic Education," PSOnline (December 1999).

    11. Quoted in Snyder, "Should Political Science Have a Civic Mission?"

    12. Plato, Protagoras 325e-326a (my translation).

    13. Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, edited by William Aldis Wright (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1880), II.xviii,i.

    14. R. S. Crane The Idea of the Humanities and Other Essays Critical and Historical, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), vol 2, find p (probably 12).

    15. Leibniz, Theodicy, II:148.

    16. Carl Becker, "Everyman His Own Historian," Annual address of the president of the American Historical Association, delivered at Minneapolis. December 29, 1931, from the American Historical Review, Vol. 37, no. 2, p. 221-236

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    February 22, 2006

    youth civic engagement: an institutional turn

    In 2005, my colleague Jim Youniss (Catholic University) and I organized a conference, funded by The Carnegie Corporation of New York, that explored a particular perspective on youth civic engagement. We tried to shift the focus away from direct efforts to change young people's civic skills, knowledge, and behavior (for example, through civic education or voter mobilization). Instead, we wanted to talk about reforms of institutions that might make participation more rewarding and welcome. The problem is not always inside young people's heads; sometimes they are right to avoid participation in the processes and institutions that exist for them. For similar reasons, it is important to study (and perhaps to change) their ordinary, daily experiences, which form the context for their civic and political engagement.

    We convened more than a dozen experts: pyschologists, political scientists, sociologists, and scholars of communications and education. They ultimately produced 14 short essays that CIRCLE released yesterday as a package (pdf, 53 pages long).

    I believe that these essays are quite rich and stimulating. At the risk of leaving out some of the best parts, I'll mention a few samples:

  • Diana Mutz argues that deliberation and participation trade-off. She finds "that although diverse political networks foster a better understanding of multiple perspectives on issues and encourage political tolerance, they discourage political participation, particularly among those who are averse to conflict. Those with diverse networks refrain from participation in part because of the social awkwardness that comes from publicly taking a stand that friends or associates may oppose. ... The best social environment for cultivating political activism is one in which people are surrounded by those who agree with them, people who will reinforce the sense that their own political views are the only right and proper way to proceed. Like-minded people can spur one another on to collective action, and promote the kind of passion and enthusiasm that is central to motivating political participation."
  • Jane Junn challenges the idea that education is simply good for civic participation. "While formal education may encourage the development of cognitive ability and individual resources, it may also be the case that these skills are less relevant to one's placement in the hierarchy of American life. Instead, the importance of education to stratification may be the role it plays as a powerful socialization device, teaching students who are successful and who progress through educational institutions to also become initiated into the hierarchical norms of commerce, politics, and social life. In short, education may be a particularly effective means of reproducing cultural, political, and economic practices. ... Education may reproduce and legitimate structural inequalities that in turn drive vast disparities in wealth, and nurture the persistence of the dominance of the in-group to the systematic disadvantage of out-groups. ... In its role as a powerful socializer, education teaches the ideology of meritocracy, by grading on normal curves and assuring those who finish on the right tail that they will succeed because they deserve to. ... It is necessary to have some mechanism which reliably reproduces the ideology that maintains the positions of power for those at the top who benefit from the system as it already exists. When outcomes are positional or scarce--when not everyone can be rich, and not everyone can be granted admission into a top school--the liberal democratic ideology must have an answer to its production of unequal outcomes. Merit can be used as a justification for inequality of outcomes in a system where the rules are supposed to be fair."
  • Dietlind Stolle characterizes the new forms of politics that we see in the anti-globalization movement and elsewhere. (1) "These new forms of participation abandon traditional (that is to say formal and bureaucratic) organizational structures in favour of horizontal and more flexible ones. Loose connections, in other words, are rapidly replacing static bureaucracies." (2) "In general these new initiatives are also less concerned with institutional affairs, such as party politics, which brings them into sharp contrast with more traditional political organisations. Life-style elements are being politicized and although the actors no longer label their action as being expressly 'political,' these preoccupations do lead to political mobilization." (3) "These new forms of participation ... rely on apparently spontaneous and irregular mobilization. The signing of petitions, or participation in protests and consumer boycotts all seem based on spontaneity, irregularity, easy exit and the possibility of shifting-in and shifting-out." (4) "New forms of participation are potentially less collective and group-oriented in character. ... While this form of protest and participation can be seen as an example of co-ordinated collective action, most participants simply perform this act alone, at home before a computer screen, or in a supermarket."
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    February 15, 2006

    are sports good for democracy?

    Joey Cheek (age 26), the winning speedskater, has decided to donate his whole Olympic prize to Right to Play, a nonprofit that serves poor kids in the developing world. He also took the opportunity to speak out on an issue. "In the Darfur region of Sudan, there have been tens of thousands of people killed," Cheek said. "My government has labeled it a genocide. I will be donating it specifically to a program to help refugees in Chad, where there are over 60,000 children who have been displaced from their homes."

    This is just an anecdote about one American athlete who pays attention to social issues and takes action. His story helps to balance all the anecdotes about bad behavior by athletes. But what happens if we move from anecdotes to data? Today, CIRCLE releases two studies on the relationship between athletics and civic engagement. We find that sports participants are much more likely than other youth to volunteer, vote, and follow the news. That correlation does not prove that sports causes civic participation. However, the correlation remains after we control for all the other variables measured in the survey, including academic success and participation in other groups.

    This is suggestive evidence that sports makes people into more active citizens. That could be because athletics teaches discipline and teamwork, or because it exposes kids to others who are (somewhat) unlike themselves, or even because athletes sometimes talk about issues on their way to practice.

    Today's release is getting quite a bit of interest. I did interviews this morning for national CBS radio news and local drivetime radio in Washington (WTOP). Also, that's my hand on the bottom of the basketball.

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    February 9, 2006

    Robert George on civic education

    Thanks to Brett Marston for directing me to Robert P. George's essay, "What Colleges Forget to Teach." This a thoughtful comment by a major conservative scholar. In essence, George objects to the balance of political ideas and materials that college students experience as undergraduates and before they arrive on campus. They should, he thinks, understand the importance of limiting the powers of the federal government, of restraining judges, and of empowering the states. They should understand the lasting virtues as well as the vices of the American constitutional order.

    I agree with all this and find it useful--especially George's conclusion that "the reform and renewal of civic education in our nation is a noble cause. We must make it an urgent priority." My agreements with George are more important than my disagreements. However ...

    1. I'm not convinced that the balance of ideas that students experience is so far from what George would prefer. Generally, when either liberals or conservatives decry the content of social studies classes, they do so innocent of any statistical evidence about what is actually taught and discussed in schools. There are anecdotes about egregious teaching that can incense people across the spectrum from Howard Zinn to Robert George himself, but no one knows how common these stories are. In 2004, we asked a national sample of young Americans to recall two major themes from their social studies classes:

  • 29.8% recalled "great American heroes and virtues of the political system"
  • 38.6% recalled "The Constitution or U.S. system of government and how it works"
  • 7.8% recalled "racism and other forms of injustice"
  • 14.8% recalled "wars and military battles"
  • 5.2% recalled "problems facing the country today"
  • These results should make George happy (and lefties unhappy), although I admit that George might not like some of the details of what students learn. For instance, it's possible that they are exposed to a liberal interpretation of the Constitution rather than the views of the Federalist Society--but who knows?

    Second, what students are taught is only part of the issue. There's also the question of how they are taught. Do they sit in large lecture halls being informed about the Constitution (from a radical, liberal, or conservative perspective)? Do they debate constitutional principles in small groups, moderated by a well-informed teacher? Do they conduct ambitious projects of research, service, or advocacy that involve constitutional principles? I'm not wedded to any one approach, but I suspect that the way we teach has much more impact than what values we try to convey in lectures.

    3. George is no doubt sincerely committed to civility and to an open-ended, ideologically diverse discussion of principles. He is perhaps right that his own perspective is undervalued in the academy. But the difficult part is not agreeing on civility or diversity as abstract principles--the hard part is making concrete judgments. For instance, George describes the situation in academia as "dire" and provides some illustrative "horror stories," such as Princeton's decision to give a "distinguished chair in bioethics to a fellow who insists that eating animals is morally wrong, but that killing newborn human infants can be a perfectly moral choice." That fellow is, of course, Peter Singer. His view is a coherent application of utilitarianism, which is a 200-year-old position with roots in ancient thought and much influence on modern conservatism. I'm no utilitarian, but I don't see how a university can regret attracting one of the most original and influential philosophers of the current era.

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    January 26, 2006

    talking about "social justice" in education

    In conversations about civic education, service-learning, and youth civic engagement, people often ask whether the purpose of what we're doing is "social justice." Lately I've been responding as follows:

    1. The phrase social justice (which has roots in Catholic thought) has been claimed by the Left. In politics, phrases are often seized by one side or the other--occasionally, they even switch their valence over time. At the moment, "social justice" has a lefty ring. Therefore, there will be a predictable consequence if you say that your service-learning program or civics class "promotes social justice." You will attract leftish students, and perhaps alienate conservatives. If you speak on behalf of a public school or state university, I think you should avoid that outcome. Individual adults who work with young people are free to promote ideologies; but state institutions should be leery of doing so.

    2. Although the left has claimed the phrase "social justice," true conservatives seek social justice. They just define it somewhat differently, they endorse alternative strategies for obtaining it, and they tend to call it by other names. It's important that the students who sign up for service-learning be exposed to serious conservative arguments about justice. One of the risks of using the phrase "social justice" is to narrow the range of debate about justice by keeping conservatives out from the beginning.

    I often hear a (probably apocryphal) story about a student who so enjoys volunteering in a soup kitchen that he blurts out, "I hope this place still exists when my kids come along, so that they can serve, too." The standard rejoinder is that the student should investigate the "root causes" of hunger and advocate solutions.

    True, but the root causes may not necessarily be capitalism or discrimination, and the best solutions may not include Food Stamps or a higher minimum wage. I'd like to see students grapple with root causes but be challenged to consider whether government intervention is the basic problem and freer markets could help. That's not usually my own view, but it's educational to consider it.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: advocating civic education

    January 2, 2006

    why libertarians need a theory of political socialization

    The interesting libertarian David Friedman argues that the First Amendment bans public schools. This is a portion of his argument, which deserves to be read in full:

    The judge who recently held it unconstitutional for public schools to be required to teach the theory of intelligent design correctly argued that doing so would be to support a particular set of religious beliefsthose that reject evolution as an explanation for the apparent design of living creatures. His mistake was not carrying the argument far enough. A school that teaches that evolution is false is taking sides in a religious disputebut so does a school that teaches that evolution is true.

    The problem is broader than evolution. In the process of educating children, one must take positions on what is true or false. Over a wide range of issues, such a claim is either the affirmation of a religious position or the denial of a religious position. Any decent scientific account of geology, paleontology, what we know about the distant past, is also a denial of the beliefs of (among others) fundamentalist Christians. To compel children to go to schools, paid for by taxes, in which they are taught that their religious beliefs are false, is not neutrality.


    My conclusion is that the existence of public schools is inconsistent with the First Amendment. Their purpose is, or ought to be, to educateand one cannot, in practice, educate without either supporting or denying a wide variety of religious claims.

    Friedman's logic applies even more generally: almost all actions by a government (e.g., speeches by elected leaders, the design of public buildings, interventions in the Middle East) may make statements--implied or explicit--in favor or against religious beliefs. For instance, maintaining an army violates Quaker and other pacifist beliefs, yet citizens are required to pay for the military. Jefferson once wrote, "to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical." Taken very literally, this is an argument not only against public schools, but against government itself.

    To me, that's a reductio ad absurdum. As a deliberative democrat, I believe that the public ought to be able to build and control public institutions without many limitations. That means that it should be constitutional for a community to teach "intelligent design." The First Amendment's ban on the "establishment of religion" should mean what it says: No established religion. In public debates about our schools, I will argue against Intelligent Design, which strikes me as intellectually embarrassing as well as possibly blasphemous. But if my side loses, I don't want the courts to bail us out by declaring ID unconstitutional. The public debate should simply continue.

    Having staked out this contrary position, let me try to say something quasi-constructive about libertarianism. Libertarians are leery of political power, because it can be used to restrict freedom. However, political power exists wherever there are millions of people with opinions. Constitutional limitations on the public's will are just pieces of paper unless the public wants to be limited.

    Therefore, libertarians must change majority opinion so that individual liberty becomes a higher moral priority than it is today. I can think of three strategies to attain that end:

    1. Libertarians can make arguments in favor of maximum liberty. Such arguments have been available for two centuries and may have enhanced popular support for civil liberties, yet most people have not been convinced that the economic role of the state should be minimized. Programs like Social Security and public education remain highly popular. A libertarian who believes (as I do not) that these programs violate liberty might consider the general limits of reasons and arguments. They must always butt up against interests, cultural norms, inherited values, experiences, and traditions--not to mention contrary arguments. Even in the long run, there is no guarantee that libertarian arguments will prevail (even if they are right).

    2. Libertarians might assume that people are being influenced against liberty by the state itself, especially through the institution of public education. Then their strategy would be to dismantle state schools (perhaps using vouchers) and rely on families and independent schools to raise children who value liberty above all else.

    I doubt that this approach would work. First of all, I'm not convinced that today's public schools socialize young people to favor the state. True, schools are authoritarian institutions, but that just makes many teenagers rebel. Schools also try to teach civil liberties and tolerance, which may be one reason that each generation comes of age more civil libertarian that its predecessors.

    Besides, I doubt that parents, left to their own devices, would pay to educate their own children to treasure liberty for all. First, developing such principles is not in kids' individual self-interest. Second, most parents want to limit, not expand, their kids' sense of individual freedom.

    We know that when adults organize neighborhood associations (largely unregulated corporations that meet market demand), they choose to impose all kinds of rules against the display of signs, against congregating on the streets, even against the private possession of pornography. Through their free choices, they socialize their kids to believe that freedom is dangerous and bad for property values. There is no reason to believe that private, voucher-supported schools would be different.

    3. The third option is to recognize that public schools are instruments for attaining public goods such as love of freedom. Today's schools probably increase students' support for civil liberties. They do not teach students to distrust the state and prefer the market. Therefore, libertarians would have to argue for some changes in curriculum and pedagogy. In doing so, they would address their fellow citizens with arguments about the public value of teaching respect for liberty. It's my sense that Americans might be responsive to such arguments.

    In making decisions about where and how to educate their own kids, most people seek to maximize their earning potential; however, in considering educational policies that will apply to everyone, they often favor more idealistic outcomes. For instance, 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). Thus it's possible that Americans would support better education for liberty.

    To be sure, most people (including me) do not think that "competent and responsible" citizens are those who value liberty above all else. I, for one, want to see young citizens develop a concern for equality as well as freedom. Nevertheless, it seems possible that libertarians could prevail in arguments about the curriculum. If they can't persuade their fellow citizens that liberty should be taught in schools, then they certainly can't convince the majority to cut Social Security--which is against their immediate economic self-interest.

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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.

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    December 9, 2005

    a political strategy

    At a meeting earlier this week, a colleague proposed a political strategy that I will summarize here, even though I find the implications at least somewhat disturbing. He said that if you want to change educational policies, you must change public opinions about schools. (By the way, a parallel analysis would apply to welfare or crime.) Most Americans live in major metropolitan areas whose news media emphasize what happens in the central cities. Therefore, coverage of--and debate about--the 50 biggest urban schools systems is the basis on which Americans form their opinions about education, writ large. Most people's own kids are not in those urban schools, but they are satisfied with their own childrens' education. To the extent that they care about education as a public issue, they are thinking about the 50 biggest urban school systems.

    Thus, to change their opinions, you have to change news coverage and editorial commentary related to the top 50 school systems. One approach might be to influence the news media itself. I recently heard that the Student Voices program measurably changed Philadelphians' attitudes toward urban youth by putting young citizens on TV in highly responsible roles. However, in the long run, there is probably no substitute for changing the actual policies, priorities, and outcomes of schools.

    Which brings us to the final step of my colleague's argument ... Who has power over the large public schools systems and other public institutions? Not elected officials, and not professionals. (Teachers and other education professions have largely fought standards-and-accountability reforms for 20 years and consistently lost.) The people who decide what happens in urban public schools and other urban institutions are a finite group in each city that consists of major developers, a few elected officials, major employers, union leaders, sometimes the heads of local colleges and universities, and sometimes some local civil rights leaders who have fought their way to the table. They all know one another. Apparently, except in San Francisco and Washington, DC, there is literally a room or building where they meet and the key decisions are made.

    The conclusion, which I certainly want to resist, is that changing national policies and priorities in education really comes down to changing the opinions of about 25 people (mostly business leaders) in each of about 50 major American metropolitan areas.

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    November 28, 2005

    political neutrality in schools

    In Vermont, an English and social studies teacher gave his students this item in a vocabulary quiz. They were asked to choose the correct word in the parenthesis:

    I wish Bush would be (coherent, eschewed) for once during a speech, but there are theories that his everyday diction charms the below-average mind, hence insuring him Republican votes. (AP story via Kevin Drum)

    In Madison, WI, third-grade students were told to write letters to public officials that "encourage[d] an end to the war in Iraq." According to the Wisconsin State Journal:

    Students were to write a letter a day for 12 days to other students, the state's U.S. senators and representatives, the president of the United States, and the secretary of the United Nations 'urging them to press for peace,' as well as to the media.

    If the war did not end in 12 days, the sequence would be repeated.

    Parents were asked to provide 10 postage stamps and 12 envelopes.

    An alternative assignment was to be provided for students whose parents did not want them to participate.

    Before I complicate this issue and discuss some of the subtleties, I'll give my verdicts. The vocabulary quiz is funny, and it's good to inject some humor into teaching. Moreover, the teacher is a professional who ought to have freedom of expression and whose every move should not be scrutinized. I wouldn't support disciplining him in any way; yet I wouldn't tell that joke myself to a high school class. The risk is too great that there's a small minority of Republicans among the Vermont students who would be offended by the implication that they or their parents are stupid (not just wrong about some particular issue).

    The anti-war letter assignment crosses an important line from civic education to advocacy. It is an illegitimate activity in a public school. Students should discuss the Iraq war and be encouraged to write letters about it. (Letter-writing is a civic skill). But they must be exposed to multiple perspectives and allowed to write their own opinions.

    Now for the complexities.

    First, public schools are not ethically or politically neutral. Every day they teach values: punctuality, obedience, authority, discipline, competition, sometimes tolerance and pluralism. The courts have held that public schools cannot explicitly teach any particular religious doctrines. They can--and many do--teach patriotism, respect for military mores, environmentalism, and/or religious and ethnic tolerance. To left-radicals and Christian conservatives alike, the distinction between permissible and illegitimate values can look pretty arbitrary. Why can you advocate environmentalism but not monotheism in a public school? (The argument that environmentalism is based on science does not convince me, but that's another story. In any case, why can you teach scientism but not a religion?)

    There are developmental pyschologists who argue that a politically neutral stance is not helpful when teaching children and adolescents. It communicates the idea that there is no way of knowing what is right, or that mature adults have no political views, or that there are so many sides to every argument that it doesn't matter which side prevails. Some psychologists believe that it is better to expose kids to a strong set of beliefs and arguments that seem to matter to the school and its teachers. An education that is rich in explicit values will not brainwash kids. They will form their own opinions--sooner or later. Meanwhile, they will understand that mature adults hold views and act on them.

    For some, the best civic education takes place in Catholic (often Jesuit) schools that demonstrate a commitment to social justice, explicitly link that commitment to their religious faith, but do not attempt to convert their students--often Protestant African Americans--to Catholicism. Their graduates understand that one can be seriously committed to a moral worldview that influences every aspect of one's life.

    We make a choice when we try to put all kids together in a "common school" that's neutral about values and ideologies. Alternatively, we can have a system of universal, publicly funded education that's pluralist. Then some kids may receive an Afrocentric curriculum; others, a libertarian one. In Philadelphia's Chinatown, some public school students attend a school that is devoted to "democracy," "self-governance," and the "creation of community"; it is "consciously anti-individualistic, anti-racist, anti-isolationist, and anti-materialist." Other public schools are so "materialistic" that they imitate corporations.

    The most radical and controversial way to achieve pluralism is to fund schools through vouchers. However, pluralism can also be achieved by giving families choices within a public school system, or by devolving educational policy to the local level. If local systems make up their own curricula, then the values that are transmitted in a Madison or Vermont school will be very different from those in a rural "red state."

    Too little is known (to my knowledge) about the differences in ideological orientations among schools and teachers and what impact that variation has on kids. However, it seems safe to assume that the "common school" is a myth and that students are mostly sorted into fairly homogeneous communities where the teaching reinforces their families' values.

    Is this homogeneity bad? Diversity of viewpoints may help to produce deliberative citizens who recognize and respect perspectives other than their own. On the other hand, some research suggests that the more ethnically diverse a school is, the less students discuss controversial issues, perhaps because such issues become too hot to handle. (PowerPoint.) In any case, viewpoint diversity may not help to motivate young people to act politically. A lot of successful mobilization comes from preaching to groups of like-minded individuals. If we demand neutrality and diversity in our schools, then we may produce students who are highly tolerant of diverse views but politically passive.

    Finally, there is the question of what the Madison school assignment meant. Perhaps it's acceptable to tell students to write letters in favor of peace, because everyone (including Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld) says that peace is the goal. "We saw peace as a common good," one Madison teacher said. "We were just advocating that people keep working toward peace."

    Participants in public debates generally state their views in phrases with which everyone else is supposed to agree. For example, everyone supports "life," and everyone values "choice"; both sides in the abortion debate try to capture the common ground. Likewise, everyone favors peace, but everyone also wants to "stop terrorism." Most people want to "support the troops" and "enhance human rights." If a teacher had told all her students to write letters "supporting the troops," that assignment would have seemed uncontroversial to some but biased to others (including me). The same is true of the pro-"peace" assignment.

    Ultimately, I don't like the letter-writing assignment because I fear a backlash. We do want students to discuss current events and to learn civic skills, including the skill of writing letters to public officials. If teachers give assignments that appear politically biased, the most likely result will be rules blocking all controversial discussions in classrooms. One angry grandparent in Madison says of the schools, "They're supposed to teach the facts and not opinions." Opinion-free education is impossible, but it's very easy for the authorities to provide education that's free of all social studies and civics.

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    October 24, 2005

    Justice O'Connor

    At last week's Steering Committee meeting of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, we were honored by a visit from Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. I don't want to quote the Justice verbatim, because I'm not sure if what she said was meant to be on the record. However, she spoke eloquently about the importance of civic education and youth civic engagement.

    Several members of the Steering Committee argued for an experiential approach to civics. They said that we should help young people to play significant roles in their communities right now, and not wait until they become adults. The Justice seemed very supportive and even recalled her own experience in high school. She said that she was afraid and alienated there until she became part of extracurricular organizations.

    She stayed with us for more than 90 minutes and asked probing questions. She was much gentler than she might be in oral argument at the Supreme Court, but much tougher and more acute than one would expect from a mere courtesy visit. She wanted to know what was working and what chance we had of succeeding with our advocacy campaign if we employed various strategies. I think she's completely serious about this topic and ready to add her very powerful voice to the movement for youth civic engagement.

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    October 14, 2005

    "education for Democratic Citizenship"

    This is a speech on that I delivered in Madrid on November 4, 2005, to an audience of educators from the Spanish-speaking world.

    Thank you very much for asking me to speak. I apologize for talking in English. Perhaps you know the old joke:

    What do you call someone who knows three languages? Trilingual.
    What do you call someone who knows two languages? Bilingual.
    What do you call someone who knows one language? American.

    As it happens, I am not monolingual, but unfortunately I have not yet learned Spanish. I hope to begin studying it within the next few years. In the meantime, I am grateful to the translators for making it possible for me to speak here today.

    I want to talk about education for democracy or civic education. I will end by discussing how schools can help make adolescents into effective citizens. I will cite data from several countries, especially Mexico, the United States, Colombia, and Chile.

    "Civic education sometimes sounds like a rather specialized or optional matter--especially at the beginning of the 21st century, when we are desperately trying to make all our students competitive in a global economy that values mathematics, science, and literacy. Under these conditions, it seems necessary to explain why civic education is not a luxury that can be considered only after we are satisfied with our childrens basic literacy. Quite the contrary--I believe that civic education is a critical component of an international struggle to sustain democracy itself.

    Half of Latin Americans believe that democracy is the best of all systems, but the percentage who hold that view has fallen in 18 of the Latin American countries since 1996. Young people have been the least likely to support democracy in these annual surveys.
    In Europe, we hear deep concerns about a "democracy deficit." The defeat of the proposed European Constitution in France and the Netherlands reflected the unpopularity--perhaps deserved--of that proposal; yet the status quo is also unpopular and relies on unaccountable institutions in Brussels.

    In the United States, many citizens are concerned about an angry and unproductive struggle between left and right, low trust in government, and restricted democratic liberties after the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001.

    I will not call this situation a "crisis, because that word is overused. I suspect one could find a speech from every year since 1900 in which someone declared a "crisis of democracy," and I don't want to join the list.

    However, it is right for every generation to be concerned. Democracy always faces threats and challenges; we overlook them at our peril. When the Constitution of my country was drafted in 1787, its authors emerged onto the hot streets of Philadelphia, and an onlooker named Mrs. Powel singled out Benjamin Franklin for a question. "Well, Doctor," she asked, "what have we got, a Republic or a Monarchy?" "A Republic," Franklin replied, "if you can keep it." Maintaining our democracies is our responsibility, and it requires constant work.

    Many observers believe that the worst threat to democracy today is globalization and the rapid movement of capital. Elected governments have limited scope for choice if investors are free to move to the most profitable locations. When a democratic government decides to raise taxes, businesses may simply relocate. Even if you favor low taxes, you may still believe that a representative government should be free to set its own economic policies. In a competitive global marketplace, states are not free--especially not if they are deeply indebted.

    On the other hand, it is interesting that the top seventeen "most competitive nations" in the world, according to the World Economic Forum, are all robust democracies that compete by providing good public services, not by reducing the size of their governments. The US is on the list, but it is surpassed by Finland and followed by Sweden and Denmark. Thus I am not sure that globalization is necessarily bad for democracy. States seem to have the power to compete even if they govern their own economies intensively, as long as they have strong democratic systems that protect against corruption and bias.

    However, one form of global commerce creates particular problems. Increasingly, cultural products--books, movies, images, and music--move across borders and look the same everywhere. A self-governing people must be able to create its own culture; that is as important as setting its own economic policy. It is a matter of identity, and identities are threatened when everyone consumes an identical pop culture.

    My country was recently defeated in a UNESCO vote on preserving cultural diversity. The vote was 158-1. The US government tends to look out for the economic interests of Hollywood and the publishing industry, which want free access to all national markets. However, let me suggest that it's a diagnostic mistake to see global pop culture as an American problem. Although some of the big media companies are headquartered in the US, others are located in Germany, Japan, and elsewhere. In any case, the demand for their products is global, which means that the cultural problem is universal, not merely American. Besides, the United States has always been a country of great internal diversity and vibrant, creative local communities. Most of us are proud of that heritage and concerned that Big Media, wherever its corporate headquarters may be located, is taking away our voices.

    Pop culture exemplifies another problem that, I believe, deserves more attention. Usually, talented and beautiful celebrities and highly trained experts work together to create best-selling cultural products. Millions of people would like to be movie stars or recording engineers, but the market is incredibly competitive, and only a few people actually occupy those roles. The more that slick, professional products penetrate the international market, the less scope exists for ordinary people to create cultural products that others will value.

    The same pattern has occurred in the fine arts (not just pop culture), and also in government and civic life. Increasingly during the 20th century, we saw public problems as technically complex and expected experts to address them. The offices of the European Union and the IMF and World Bank are full of such experts. A recent survey in Mexico found that half of recent secondary-school graduates define "democracy as government by experts. Meanwhile, national political leaders have become charismatic celebrities, featured on the same pages with movie stars and models.

    Indeed, expertise and talent have their place, but they create a tension with democracy. In a world that values outstanding talent and specialized knowledge, most people have a limited role to play beyond that of consumer. However, people who have little direct experience in governing their own communities will not be able to select good representatives (because they won't know what it is like to make judgments and defend positions on public issues). They may have unrealistic expectations for government--either too high or too low. They may support democratic governments when times are good but prefer authoritarianism when the economic news is bad. Not having a personal stake in democracy, or much direct experience with it, they will evaluate it only for what it can deliver in the short term.

    Besides, experts don't know everything; they are subject to corruption; and they have nowhere near as much potential creativity and enthusiasm as the population at large.
    Thus vibrant and effective democracies require civic participation. To participate, one needs experience. And ordinary people can have experience only if experts and professionals leave them some space.

    We need everyone to create and distribute cultural products that collectively (although not homogeneously) define their communities. We also need ordinary people to be able to address community problems together, whether their problems are war, poverty, crime, or traffic jams. From their experience in working together at a human scale, individuals can develop the skills and passion to be effective citizens of Chile, Venezuela, the USA, or the European Union.

    I have said that we live in an era of globalization, technical expertise, and celebrity culture. The most powerful politicians (in my country and elsewhere) combine all three problems: they are celebrities, they play to global audiences, and they use an arsenal of sophisticated techniques to manipulate public opinion. Under these circumstances, it is easy to be discouraged about civic participation.

    At the same time, however, we live in an age of civic innovation, when people are creating new ways to participate, appropriate for the 21st century. As part of my job, I try to observe these innovations in the United States, but I usually find that each excellent project is part of an international network. Sometimes, the global leaders come from countries like Brazil and South Africa, relatively new democracies with extraordinary records of civic experimentation.

    The civic work that I admire most has the following features.

    First, it is open-ended. In other words, it doesn't attempt to drive people to any pre-determined views, but helps them to develop their own positions. It takes seriously the ideas and experiences that people actually have; it doesn't assume that they have been manipulated by capitalism, religion, the state, the mass media, or any other force to adopt views that they should be disabused of. In short, it is respectful--and respectful of everyone, including those traditionally left out (even teenagers). A single word for such respectful, inclusive discussion is "deliberation."

    Second, good civic work combines deliberation with action, because talk alone is frustrating. People must be able to consider an issue together, listen to one anothers ideas, and then actually do something about it.

    Third, the actions that people take are often creative. I realize that our interests sometimes clash; then we must negotiate our differences or compete for power and scare resources. Disagreement and competition are unavoidable, but they are not the whole of politics. People can also be creative together, building new institutions, increasing public assets, strengthening networks, and developing our shared culture.

    Fourth, civic work occurs at a human scale, not merely in bureaucratic national organizations or the mass media.

    And finally, civic work pays attention to young people, who must be deliberately supported and guided as they learn to participate in civic life.

    I could provide many examples of excellent civic work that takes place in communities around the world. For instance, thousands of citizens in Brazilian cities like Porto Alegre meet to allocate a percentage of their municipal budget to priorities that they set themselves--using a model that has been borrowed in other Latin American countries. Corruption is down and efficiency is up as a result of broad public participation.

    In many nations, new forms of cooperative agriculture, housing, and manufacturing are springing up and prospering. Some of these organizations are impressively competitive. For instance, the Mondragn worker cooperative network in Spain had ten billion US dollars of sales in 2003. These organizations are firmly rooted in particular geographical communities and give ordinary people plenty of opportunities to become involved.

    I could also mention numerous examples of nonprofit media that take advantage of the openness of the Internet and the cheapness of video and audio production today. It is possible to create an elaborate and impressive news channel with virtually no money, as long as one can harness the volunteer contributions of many citizens.

    However, today I want to emphasize work with young people, and especially work that can realistically be expected to take place inside fairly conventional schools. Few national ministries of education will be enthusiastic about engaging their students in creating alternative media channels or allocating government funds. These ideas are too radical. However, there is worthwhile civic work for students to do that is more palatable to the authorities.

    A mass of evidence from developmental psychology shows that what we experience during adolescence has long-term effects on our civic skills and behaviors. What a 14-year-old believes about politics is not as important as her experiences working with others on social issues. Such experiences teach skills, they generate habits, they introduce individuals into networks of people who are busy working on civic problems. Above all, they help to create an identity. People who have a habit of being civically active begin to believe that they are responsible citizens: that is their nature. Actions like voting, participating in meetings, volunteering time, collecting information, and expressing ones views then come naturally.

    All sectors should be involved in civic education--not just teachers and schools, but also parents, religious leaders, journalists, judges, and politicians. However, schools play a crucial role.

    To an extent, all education is civic education: data consistently show that people who have had more years of schooling are more skillful and confident in political settings and more favorable toward democracy. Thus, it is critical to broaden educational attainment for all young people. In the United States, where a high school diploma is considered essential for full participation in the economy, only two-thirds of young people complete high school. Only about one half of students who identify themselves as "Latino receive diplomas. In Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic, less than half of the population thats of age to be in secondary school is actually enrolled.

    While all good education has civic advantages, we should not overlook the power of programs that are deliberately designed to prepare democratic citizens. Increasingly, we understand how to make civic education work in schools. Data collected from multiple countries shows the following relationships:

    First, students who belong to clubs in the schools at age 14 or 17 are much more likely than other people to be involved in civil society--even 40 years later. These findings underline the importance of school clubs and other student organizations. Chile and Colombia are among many countries in which data show that most students belong to some kind of school group (yet many do not). Elected student governments and school newspapers may be especially valuable, but sports clubs also seem to help.

    Second, students who study government, history, or law know more about those subjects than other students. Knowledge is not sufficient by itself, but it is useful. One cannot participate very effectively in politics or civil society without a baseline of facts. Probably, those who have some political knowledge at age 17 are able to acquire more throughout their lives, because they are capable of understanding the news and participating in discussions. Those who have little knowledge at age 17 may be permanently left out.

    Third, discussions of current issues in schools give students a greater interest in politics, improved critical thinking and communication skills, more civic knowledge, and greater interest in discussing public affairs outside of school.
    Reading the newspaper is a powerful predictor of civic engagement among young people. This relationship has been found in studies in the US, Colombia, Chile, and Portugal, among other countries. However, reading the newspaper is hard. Reporters expect their readers to have a foundation of information and skills. Therefore, it may be very worthwhile to devote time specifically to teaching young people to read a newspaper.

    By the way, students should learn to assess news critically. In Chile, only 5 percent of 14-year-olds say that they always trust the national government; but more than 25 percent always trust TV news.

    Fourth, students who have an opportunity to combine academic study with practical work on social issues sometimes develop civic skills and even change their identities so that they see themselves as active citizens. In the United States, a practice called "service-learning is very common. Service-learning means a deliberate combination of unpaid community work (for example, helping elderly people or cleaning up a park) with academic study of the same topic. The phrase "service-learning does not translate very well and is not used much in other countries, but many cultures have vital traditions of combining education with service.

    Fifth, students benefit if they feel they have a voice in their own schools. To have a "voice means that school authorities will listen to you if you express opinions in a responsible way. Students who feel that they have a voice in their schools are more civically "proficient--they understand democratic concepts better and consider themselves more likely to participate as informed voters.

    Promoting student "voice does not mean abdicating adult responsibility or allowing kids to run a school. It does mean reducing the authoritarianism that is traditional in most countries educational systems, and that often makes teachers as well as students feel powerless and voiceless. Many democratic countries claim to support democratic voice in their schools. For example, a Resolution issued in Colombia in 1994 calls for all schools to operate in a democratic spirit and to include students in their Directive Councils. In the same country, the Escuelas Nuevas represent promising experiments that give a strong voice to students and teachers.

    Nevertheless, authoritarian and arbitrary governance remains common in the educational systems of all countries with which I am familiar, including my own. If students are taught that democracy is excellent, but everyday they see that it does not exist in their own institutions, they are unlikely to develop into democratic citizens. Indeed, adolescents in Chile and Colombia are mostly able to describe democracy as an ideal but tend to see it as irrelevant to their experience. In Colombia, the more students that know about politics, the less they trust institutions such as schools and courts.

    Finally, although I am not aware of data that proves it, I think it is likely that students who create plays, literary publications, music, or videos that have political or social themes will gain civic skills and confidence.

    In short, good civic education has all of the features that we expect of good civic work for adults. It is open-ended--allowing students to form their own conclusions about political issues and respecting their opinions. It is inclusive and democratic. In combines deliberation and reflection with work. It is creative and has a cultural dimension.

    Any democracy must pay explicit attention to the development of its young peoples civic skills, habits, and attitudes. We human beings do not instinctively develop the skills necessary for democracy. We are not automatically capable of working together with others on common problems. We do not naturally understand alternative perspectives. Unless we are taught to care about other people, we are unlikely to show concern from anyone beyond our immediate circle of family and friends.

    Citizens are made, not born. Civic education is the process by which we teach young people to be effective and responsible members of democratic communities. Increasingly, we know how to make civic education work in our schools. Nothing is more important to the future health of our democracies.

    Some sources: The Latinobarmetro poll, summarized in "Democracys Low-Level Equilibrium, The Economist, Aug 12th 2004; Felipe Tirado and Gilberto Guevara, "Educacin Cvica: Un Estudio Complemenatrio, Mxico (2005), quoted in Fernando Reimers and Eleanora Villegas-Reim,ers, "Educating Democratic Citizens in Latin America, in Lawrence Harrison and Jerome Kagan (eds.), Developing Cultures: Essays on Cultural Change (Routledge, 2005), pp. ; UNDP statistics from 2002/3; Judith Torney-Purta and Jo-Ann Amadeo, "Stengthening Democracy Through Civic Education: An Empirical Analysis Highlighting the Views of Students and Teachers, Organization of American States (Washington, 2004); Alvaro Rodrguez Rueda, "Education for Democracy in Colombia, in Judith Torney-Purta, John Schwille, and Jo-Ann Amadeo (eds) Civic Education Across Countries: Twenty-Four National Case Studies from the IEA Civic Education Project (IEA, 1999), p. 141; Judith Torney-Purta, Carolyn Henry Barber and Wendy Klandl Richardon, "Trust in Government-related Institutions and Political Engagement among Adolescents in Six Countries, Acta Politica, vol. 39 (2004), p. 396.

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: advocating civic education

    September 26, 2005

    the difficulty of changing educational policy

    I should be optimistic about the prospects for better civic education--and (more generally) the potential for civic renewal in America. Within the last 10 days, Ive had a chance to testify before the new American Bar Association Commission on Civic Education, which is co-chaired by Sandra Day OConnor and Bill Bradley and includes other distinguished leaders. Ive attended the National Council on Citizenships annual conference, with hundreds of participants. Next was an advisory board for America's Promise, an organization with considerable clout that wants all adolescents to have, among other things, opportunities to serve in their communities. And today Im participating in the third annual Congressional Conference on Civic Education, which convenes delegations from all 50 states. At the Congressional Conference, Justice Stephen Breyer, Howard Baker, Lee Hamilton, Tom Foley, Margaret Spellings, and other luminaries have addressed the plenary group with enthusiasm.

    Yet I dont think Ive ever been so aware of the barriers to change. We know (more or less) what students should experience in schools to prepare them for democracy. They should take classes that introduce them to great principles and issues of democracy and that help them to see how these themes relate to their own practical concerns. Students should be able to serve in their communities and write about or discuss their service. There should be youth groups that they can join, including student governments and school newspapers. They should have opportunities to discuss current issues with neutral and well-informed adults as moderators. They should get a hearing when they express their views on the governance of their own schools. And they should occasionally play challenging civic roles in simulations such as Model UN, mock trial, or computer games about politics.

    We know much less about how to change policies so that kids have better odds of experiencing good civic education. To influence education, legislatures and other powerful institutions can create or enact mandates for courses; mandatory assessments (either with our without high stakes for students); educational mandates and/or support for teachers; rules promoting freedom of speech and assembly and free, meaningful participation within schools; changes in the certification of education schools; and even changes in the fundamental structure of schools, for example to make them smaller, more diverse, or more thematically coherent. Lawmakers can also repeal excessive mandates in other subjects that compete with civics. They can provide additional funding, especially for extracurricular activities; or purchase particular textbooks and other teaching materials.

    These decisions are made by school administrators, school systems, state agencies, the federal government, and independent associations such as accrediting organizations. Many thousands of policymakers have a say; often some groups play others to stalemate. The division of responsibility is one reason that successive waves of educational reform have left actual practices (both pedagogy and curriculum) remarkably unchanged over 50 or even 80 years. Of all areas of education, civics is particularly hard to shift, since very few policymakers are concerned about civic outcomes.

    We are trying to create a movement in favor of the necessary reforms. The movement now has some traction, as shown by the prominent and dedicated people who have come aboard. But the effort would be much easier if we could formulate a short list of priorities that would apply everywhere. For example, it would make life easier if we could say that every student should have a service-learning class, or that every school should have a school newspaper. These proposals are brief enough to fit on a bumper-sticker and easy enough to be widely repeated.

    However, in educational policy, one must respect federalism and local control. Matters really are different in each community; one set of reforms would not help everywhere. Besides, education is a fiercely guarded state prerogative, and states resist national mandates. Even No Child Left Behind, one of the boldest federal interventions in the history of US education, leaves it to the states to set most standards. This is one reason that we cannot recommend a single policy prescription for everyone.

    Furthermore, it isn't responsible to promote bumper-sticker-size slogans. So much depends on the quality of a particular approach and the degree to which teachers and students genuinely embrace it. A service-learning mandate would probably result in a great deal of low-quality programming, as indeed is the case in Maryland, where every student is required to conduct service for graduation, and most of what they do is meaningless. A mandatory civics course would make little difference, since most students who reach 12th grade already have to take such a course. Requiring two courses instead of one would backfire if the courses were poorly taught or if they replaced an equally valuable class.

    Finally, we lack information about state- or system-level policies that make a difference in civics. There is a database (which my organization, CIRCLE, co-funded) of state civic-education policies. This database shows that some states require student to take several civics courses, to participate in service activities, or to pass a civics test. But no one has yet uncovered evidence that any existing combination of policies works better than any other.

    For a while this year, I hoped that we might have an opening when major school systems try to create much smaller high schools, as is being done in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. If it turned out that small schools produce better citizens (all else being equal), then we could join forces with the proponents of small schools and have a real impact. It was partly with that goal in mind that I organized a National Press Club event on small schools. However, I soon found that there is mixed and fragmentary research on smaller schools and civic outcomes. We dont have the basis, in good conscience, to sign onto the small-schools movement without reservations and qualifications.

    Conceivably, reading education provides another opening. Today, elementary reading curricula include almost nothing but fiction. Reading about history and social issues might prepare young children better for the existing, high-stakes reading exams while also giving them more civic knowledge and skills. However, we know too little at present about the long-term benefits of acquiring civic knowledge at a young age.

    In the absence of a simple policy proposal, our de facto strategy is to build a robust network of people in favor of civic education (broadly defined), so that there are individuals who care about civics in every state. They can then decide what policy changes are most important in their local circumstances. They can jump on opportunities to create good programs--or play defense when someone threatens to remove civics or social studies or cut funding for youth groups. In the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, we like to advertise these and other successes of our state teams over the last year:

  • The Colorado legislature unanimously endorsed the Colorado Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools and appropriated funds to the state Department of Education to assist districts with civic learning standards and best practices.

  • The Michigan Coalition on Civic Education prevailed in its effort to retain social studies as a key component of the state assessment program.

  • In New Hampshire, the Alliance for Civic Engagements Student Voice Summit set up a student group to spearhead proposals to the state legislature; legislators have joined with the Alliance to develop a policy strategy for civic learning.

  • In Vermont, the Campaigns state team selected six pilot schools to develop model civic learning policies and practices that can be replicated statewide; each is paired with a policymaker to work on high school reform.
  • I am proud of our community for achieving these steps. Yet the modesty of their hard-won achievements reflects the tremendous difficulty of effecting substantial change.

    The only alternative strategy that I can imagine is somehow to provoke a debate between liberals and conservatives over citizenship, so that each side would promote a somewhat different set of policies. For instance, imagine if a major Republican candidate in 08 called for all students to take a high-stakes factual exam on American history; and a major Democratic candidate demanded that every student have a high-quality experience in service-learning. Whoever won would probably find it impossible (or at least inadvisable) to enact an actual federal mandate. Nevertheless, the debate might have a beneficial effect at the state and local level.

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    September 22, 2005

    essential historical facts?

    I believe that people should know some facts about politics, history, and law. You can't get along with skills alone; and not all facts are equally important. But how do we reason about what information is essential and what is trivial?

    At an event earlier this week, I heard Eugene Hickock, a former US Deputy Secretary of Education, tell two stories that he intended to shock the audience. He had recently asked a family friend who is an excellent current college student to name the final battle of the Revolutionary War, and she couldn't come up with "Yorktown." (In the audience, all our jaws were supposed to drop when we heard this.) Also, Dr. Hickock now teaches constitutionalism in law school. Since the states are the issue in federalism, he asks his students to name all of the state capitals--and they cannot do it!

    Now, I happen to think that a list of state capitals is mere trivia (you can look them up if you need them), although if an adult US citizen doesn't know about Sacramento, Austin, or Albany, that may reflect a lack of experience reading political news. I understand the significance of Yorktown and recognize that sacrifices were made there that have benefitted us ever since. And yet I would put the name of Yorktown far down on a list of important historical facts--far, far below the First Amendment, Franklin's diplomacy in France, the Stamp Tax, the existence of slavery in the colonies, and even the battles of Lexington and Concord.

    I suspect that a room of reasonably open-minded people would soon agree about many items on a list of crucial facts and concepts, but some disagreements would persist. What criteria can we use to address such differences?

    permanent link | comments (3) | category: advocating civic education

    September 20, 2005

    the importance of civics for less advantaged kids

    Perhaps the main reason that I am so committed to the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools is that civic education can increase the political clout of less-advantaged kids. Here is the evidence:

  • People need factual knowledge to participate in politics. Unless they understand who's running, when an election is scheduled, and what the current issues are, they simply cannot vote. The same is true for other forms of political participation, such as protest. Therefore, studies find a very strong correlation between political knowledge and participation. There is a weaker relationship between knowledge and participation in civil society.
  • In the US, there is a big gap in political knowledge between advantaged and disadvantaged students. While US kids overall did better than the international average on a 1999 assessment, educationally disadvantaged students scored as badly as those in the worst-performing countries. There was also a 38 percentage-point gap in expectations of voting between more advantaged and less advantaged kids. (See details on p. 5 of this pdf.)
  • The biggest change in civics teaching since 1972 has been the dropping of 9th grade civics. Meanwhile, social studies has been cut in many elementary schools. "American Government" classes remain common at 12th grade. But we know that only about two thirds of all students, and only one half of African Americans and Latinos, are completing 12th grade. So the disappearance of civics in earlier grades is hitting less advantaged kids harder.
  • In general, the quality of civics instruction is better than people sometimes assume. Most teachers use interactive lessons and actvities. However, according to the 1998 NAEP, students of color and students from low-education families were the least likely to report experiencing interactive classroom learning activities in their social studies classes, such as role-playing exercises, mock trials, visits from community members, or letter writing.
  • Students gain civic skills and confidence when they have a voice in the management of their schools. One way to accomplish that is by making the student government empowered and representative. But Daniel McFarland and Carlos Starmanns (Stanford) find that student governments are much more common and more empowered in affluent suburban schools than in poor urban ones.
  • By advocating better civics education from k-12, we hope to benefit young people who are not on track for college, young people from poor households, and young people of color. The result should be more civic and political participation by those citizens.

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    September 14, 2005

    they agree about one thing: Streetlaw

    Since I'm on the board of Streetlaw, Inc., I can't resist quoting this snippet from the Roberts confirmation hearings:

    ROBERTS: In addition to those actually involved in the case, one of the pro bono activities that I'm most committed to is a program sponsored by the Supreme Court Historical Society and an organization called Street Law. They bring high school teachers to D.C. every summer to teach them about the Supreme Court. And they can then go back and teach the court in their classes.

    And I've always found that very, very fulfilling.

    HATCH: Well, thank you. My time is up.

    Thanks, Mr. Chairman.

    SPECTER: Thank you, Senator Hatch.

    Senator Kennedy?

    KENNEDY: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

    That Street Law program is a marvelous program. I commend you for your involvement in that.

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    September 9, 2005

    why it's important for young people to have civic opportunities

    James Youniss and Daniel Hart have summarized more than a dozen longitudinal studies that follow young people into adulthood and repeatedly ask questions about their civic engagement and values. The basic pattern is very consistent: those who participate in politics or community affairs or leadership roles at age 15 or 22 are much more likely to be involved at age 30 or 50. Probably the longest study is by Kent Jennings, which finds a relationship between participation in high school groups in the 1960s and participation in community groups by the same people in the 1990s.

    One possible explanation is that some people have a personality trait, moral value, or other internal characteristic that predisposes them to participate when they are young and still applies when they are older. In that case, it would not matter much whether adolescents and young adults were given opportunities to participate civically. Assuming they had the right mental predispositions, they would participate whenever they had an opportunity, even if they had to wait for adulthood. Our goal, in that case, should be to change hearts and minds, to make people feel civically responsible.
    If this theory applied, then we might also understand certain historical events as the result of shifts in values: for example, the Civil Rights Movement would be a product of new consciousness among African Americans (and to a lesser extent, among Whites). By the same token, we should be concerned about certain negative trends in values, like the big increase in materialistic values held by incoming college freshmen since 1966.

    However, the evidence tends to suggest a very different view. Based on surveys of participants and non-participants, it does not appear that young people engage in service or politics because they have particular values beforehand. It seems to matter much more whether they are recruited to participate, and whether they have appropriate skills and knowledge. But if values do not determine participation, participation does change values and habits. When we compare participants who appeared similar before a civic opportunity, we often find that they behave quite different afterwards. This was true of comparable people who did and did not participate in the Freedom Summer campaigns of 1964. Such profoundly moving and terrifying work might be expected to leave a lasting mark (see Doug McAdam's book, Freedom Summer). But the same is true to a lesser extent of young people who participate in student government or school newspapers. Even forty years later, they remain more civically engaged than other people who answered the same survey questions as they did.

    To be sure, participants in civic life could have some disposition or character trait that was not measured in the surveys given before they chose to engage civically. That unobserved disposition could be responsible for their civic participation. But it is much more straightforward to assume that most people will participate if they are given the opportunity. The range in their characters and values doesnt matter much; the opportunity is more important. Once people begin to participate, they obtain skills to engage civically; they get satisfaction from doing so; they enter networks that inform them about other opportunities and cause them to be frequently recruited; and their identity begins to shift. They begin to see themselves as citizens or participants, not as isolated individuals.

    I was directly involved in conducting focus groups of some 75 highly engaged students at the University of Maryland in December 2004. They tended to tell a story of recruitment that led to habits of participation. Several acknowledged that they began to serve in high school because of pressure from parents or to improve their college prospects; but they found they liked it. I became addicted to service, one student said. Another observed, You tend to see the same pattern, where people who were active in high school are the same people who come to college and are active. Many students explained that they had become involved in a first campus group or program almost by accident, but then they were recruited to join other groups and activities. They suspected that if they had missed the initial invitation, they never would have become campus leaders and engaged citizens. One student whose personal career had taken her from student government into peer counseling said, Everything builds on itself. Several students said that they had participated in groups, projects, and events because they were asked to do so. Personalized invitations from faculty, staff, or peers were much more effective than mass mailings and emails. As student leaders, participants in these focus groups also issued many invitations to peers. One said, In the committees I run, I take people who have the qualities of leaders, and expose them, bring them along in meetings with the Administration.

    If this theory of recruitment followed by habit-formation applies widely, then the most important thing is to make sure that many people are recruited and encouraged to participate in meaningful ways. We should be less concerned about shifts in values as measured by opinion polls (although those might be symptomatic of changes in available opportunities). And we should be more optimistic that if we provide extracurricular groups, service projects, and other civic opportunities, young people will sign up and benefit lastingly.

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: advocating civic education

    August 4, 2005

    teaching the First Amendment

    According to a Knight Foundation study released earlier this year (based on more than 100,000 surveys) only 51 percent of high school students believe that "newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories." This kind of finding brings to mind Judge Learned Hand's caution, delivered to a large crowd in Central Park on I Am an American Day, May 21, 1944--two weeks before D-Day. Judge Hand said, "I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws, and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it."

    If young people don't believe in the First Amendment, free speech may not be safe for long, especially since attitudes toward rights (and other large social issues) tend to form in adolescence and remain pretty durable.

    However, good work is underway. Knight is behind a new Teach the First Amendment website that provides access to free course materials and lesson plans, a quiz of student knowledge, links to advocacy work in support of civic education (including the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools), and assistance in helping to start student media projects. The last element is important: the Knight study found that students who were personally involved in newspapers or broadcast work were more supportive of free speech.

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    August 3, 2005

    service-learning: latest research

    Service-learning, which is present in 44 percent of American high schools, means a combination of community service with academic work on the same topic. For example, students may volunteer in a homeless shelter while reading articles about homelessness and writing papers on the subject. I am a proponent of this approach, having devoted much of my own discretionary time to a service-learning project. However, I think we proponents should squarely face research findings about service-learning that raise serious questions. In the light of these findings, not our message but our practice probably needs to change.

    For instance, CIRCLE sponsored a recent study by Shelley Billig, Sue Root, et al. that was unusual in that it actually compared service-learning students to comparable students in regular social studies classes. (Very little service-learning research is comparative). Billig et al. found that service-learning kids were significantly more likely to say they intended to vote and that they enjoyed school. These were two positive results, but on the many other indicators, the service-learning students scored the same as the comparison group. Moreover, there was much more variation among the service-learning classes, with some scoring high above--and others, far below--the average. The more effective service-learning classes were taught by teachers who had been using that approach for a long time. There was less variation in the regular social studies programs.

    Clearly, there is some good news in the study. Among other things, schools need not sacrifice academic knowledge by using experiential education, because kids in the service-learning program scored as well as the comparison group on knowledge questions. On the other hand, if I were a school administrator who did not have a prior commitment to service-learning, this is what I would probably say in response to the study:

    "I am going to allow service-learning, because some of my teachers who are dedicated to it get quite good results. I don't want to sacrifice those results or discourage a subculture of my teachers who are motivated to use community-service in their classes. However, I'm not going to do much to encourage service-learning, either. After all, it's likely to be expensive and possibly controversial. On average, we can get the same results using more conventional approaches. Moreover, the existence of some real dud projects in service-learning makes me think that quality might decline if we tried to increase the frequency of this approach. It's good for self-selected teachers and perhaps self-selected kids, but it's not for the mainstream. If anything, I believe we need less service-learning with more quality control."

    This kind of response--based on the most recent comparative research--should be something of a wake-up call for those of us in the service-learning business.

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    July 28, 2005

    civic skills, workplace skills (take 2)

    I received some interesting comments in response to my recent post on the relationship between democratic education and education for the 21st-century workforce. So here is a different take, influenced by some good points from friends:

    1. Jobs in the "information economy" require skills that are also essential for citizenship. Achieve, a nonprofit research organization created by the National Governors Association, has conducted surveys to determine the skills that are most demanded by employers and by college admissions officers (who, in turn, are gatekeepers to most of the best jobs). Achieve finds that successful workers in a knowledge economy must be able to collaborate in teams with diverse partners, communicating clearly and with civility. They must also be able to evaluate news reports critically, distinguish between reliable and unreliable online information, make public presentations, and in many other ways demonstrate skills that are equally necessary in a democratic community.

    2. Intentional civic education is a good means to prepare people for skilled employment in the 21st century. Modern civic education includes classes on government, social studies, and history (which may involve debates, research projects, and site visits); service-learning opportunities that often combine practical problem-solving in the community with research and writing; appropriate student participation in the governance of schools; and simulations of lawmaking, judicial processes, and diplomacy. All of these pedagogies--which combine direct, practical experience with reflection on perennial issues and concepts--stand to teach the very skills that colleges and employers increasingly demand.

    Nevertheless ...

    3. Good education for the job market is not adequate preparation for citizenship. There are two major reasons for this. First, even though all good jobs now require relatively advanced skills, they do not all demand civic skills. For example, the Achieve study finds that two manufacturing occupations that are growing and that pay good wages require advanced mathematics and literacy skills, including the ability to write memoranda and other analytical documents collaboratively. These occupations do not, however, require the ability to make oral presentations or to interpret the news--essential democratic skills. Thus, even in the 21st-century, a person can be well prepared for work and yet lack certain skills that would enable him or her to participate effectively in a democratic community.

    Second, democratic participation requires some habits, skills, bodies of knowledge, and attitudes that are unnecessary in almost all jobs. For example, Achieve finds that high school graduates should be able to "analyze foundational U.S. documents for their historical and literary significance (for example, The Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, Abraham Lincoln's 'Gettysburg Address,' Martin Luther King's 'Letter from Birmingham Jail'). Indeed, citizens must understand these texts, which teach us our rights and responsibilities and the purposes of our public institutions. Many colleges rightly expect students to have such understanding--but that is because good colleges care about democracy. There is no necessary connection between understanding the founding documents of the American Republic and being effective in the workplace--as shown by the success of firms and employees in many foreign countries.

    4. Communities are more economically successful when their residents have civic commitments and abilities. Statistics reveal a strong correlation between sustained prosperity and "social capital" (i.e., trust for other people and membership in groups). This correlation probably arises because people who work together to address local problems can form economic networks more efficiently, can reduce crime and corruption without as much dependence on the government, can gather and share information about assets and opportunities, and can persuade educated young people to stay in their community. However, successful civic collaboration requires habits and skills that, as Elinor Ostrom has shown, are counter-intuitive and contrary to people's immediate, narrow self-interest. Therefore, participation in communities must be taught; it will not develop automatically.

    Put together, these four points support the need for collaboration among civic educators, the business community, and those who are primarily concerned about students' preparation for work. Civic education is not the same as training for the workforce--not even in a knowledge economy. Nevertheless, there is an important overlap between civic skills and workforce skills that suggest the need for dialogue and collaboration.

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    July 19, 2005

    civic skills, workplace skills

    Through most of the twentieth century, it seemed that democratic skills conflicted with workplace skills, just as the organizational structures of democracy were inefficient for producing consumer goods. Engineers divided factory production into the smallest possible units; workers were trained in specialized tasks and given little discretion. They weren't supposed to address problems or set an agenda for their organizations. Meanwhile, white-collar professionals were also expected to specialize. They had no normative insight--no claim to know what should be done--but only a grasp of the most efficient means to a given end. Their amoral knowledge conferred power. In contrast, democracy was supposed to be egalitarian and concerned with normative questions about a society's goals and ends. Democratic citizens were supposed to be critical thinkers, problem-solvers, and moral agents.

    Unfortunately, training for the workforce would tend to undermine civic skills, and vice-versa. A highly critical, independent-minded, generally educated citizen would simply be miserable in a factory. To make matters worse, scientific rationality and specialization were seen as synonymous with efficiency. Therefore, if a democratic government wanted to be an efficient check or counterweight in the marketplace, then it needed to become like a big firm, rationalized, hierarchical, and specialized--in a word, bureaucratic. But then there would be less work for citizens to do in the public sector (for which they would nevertheless have to pay taxes). The result was a deep dilemma for democracy, and especially for those who hoped that public action might reduce human misery.

    According to a fascinating article by Dorf and Sabel, "A Constitution of Democratic Experimentalism" (click for the huge .doc file), the tension between civic skills and organizations and the norms of the factory lessened when Japanese manufacturers revolutionized industrial production by replacing assembly lines with teams of generalists. Instead of giving each worker a set of unchanging tasks, the Japanese car companies established benchmarks for production and challenged work teams to beat them. Even after these techniques began to spread to the US (and especially to white-collar work), there remained a tension between the workplace and democracy. But today the contrast in values and skills is less stark than it used to be.

    That trend is evident in certain current efforts at educational reform. The National Governors' Association uses Achieve, a nonprofit, to conduct surveys and other studies to determine empirically what skills workers need for today's jobs and higher education. Achieve publishes lists of such skills. To a striking degree, what workers need are also what citizens need: abilities to work together in groups to define and address problems. See "below the fold" for a list of Achieve skills that strike me as highly civic.

    (NB: Before we get carried away with enthusiasm for the new workplace and its civic character, it's worth noting that Achieve correlates skills to particular job titles. Even according to their analysis, machine operators and wafer fabrication and manufacturing technicians--two of the 10 jobs provided for illustrative purposes--need none of the advanced civic skills.)

    According to Achieve, the successful high school graduate can ...

    a. 7 Comprehend and communicate quantitative, technical and mathematical information.

    Give and follow spoken instructions to perform specific tasks, to answer questions or to solve problems.
    (Associated Workplace Tasks: #1 and 2)

    B2. Summarize information presented orally by others.

    B3. Paraphrase information presented orally by others.

    B4. Identify the thesis of a speech and determine the essential elements that elaborate it.

    B5. Analyze the ways in which the style and structure of a speech support or confound its meaning or purpose.

    B6. Make oral presentations [with 7 specified attributes, including "support[ing] pport judgments with sound evidence and well-chosen details;
    mak[ing] skillful use of rhetorical devices."

    B7. Participate productively in self-directed work teams for a particular purpose (for example, to interpret literature, write or critique a proposal, solve a problem, make a decision), including:

    * posing relevant questions;
    * listening with civility to the ideas of others;
    * extracting essential information from others' input;
    * building on the ideas of others and contributing relevant information or ideas in group discussions;
    * consulting texts as a source of ideas;
    * gaining the floor in respectful ways;
    * defining individuals' roles and responsibilities and setting clear goals;
    * acknowledging the ideas and contributions of individuals in the group;
    * understanding the purpose of the team project and the ground rules for decision-making;
    * maintaining independence of judgment, offering dissent courteously, ensuring a hearing for the range of positions on an issue and avoiding premature consensus;
    * tolerating ambiguity and a lack of consensus; and
    * selecting leader/spokesperson when necessary.

    C4. Drawing on readers' comments on working drafts, revise documents to develop or support ideas more clearly, address potential objections, ensure effective transitions between paragraphs and correct errors in logic.
    (Associated Workplace Tasks: #4, 5 and 6)
    (Associated Postsecondary Assignments: #4, 5 and 6)

    C5. Edit both one's own and others' work for grammar, style and tone appropriate to audience, purpose and context.

    D3. Make distinctions about the credibility, reliability, consistency, strengths and limitations of resources, including information gathered from Web sites.

    E1. Distinguish among facts and opinions, evidence and inferences.

    E4. Evaluate the range and quality of evidence used to support or oppose an argument.

    E6. Analyze written or oral communications for false assumptions, errors, loaded terms, caricature, sarcasm, leading questions and faulty reasoning.

    F5. Interpret and use information in maps, charts, graphs, time lines, tables and diagrams.

    H1. Demonstrate knowledge of 18th and 19th century foundational works of American literature.
    (Associated Postsecondary Assignment: #6)

    H2. Analyze foundational U.S. documents for their historical and literary significance (for example, The Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address," Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail").

    H8. Analyze the moral dilemmas in works of literature, as revealed by characters' motivation and behavior.

    L2.1. Evaluate reports based on data published in the media by considering the source of the data, the design of the study, and the way the data are analyzed and displayed.

    L2.2. Identify and explain misleading uses of data.

    L2.3. Recognize when arguments based on data confuse correlation with causation.

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    June 8, 2005

    "Is Small Beautiful?"--the potential of alternative high schools

    Rethinking Schools is an impressive publication, founded by teachers, dedicated to progressive reforms, and capable of attracting contributions by famous authors as well as excellent articles by educators who work "in the trenches." The current issue (not yet reflected on the website) is entirely devoted to the question: "Is small beautiful? The promise and problems of small school reform."

    All the articles are stimulating, and there is so much to say in response that I expect to pick up several themes in subsequent posts. In fact, the issue is an excellent introduction to current "progressive" views of education in general, even though the explicit topic is small-school reform.

    Several major urban systems are permitting lots of small schools to open, each with a strong and distinctive "theme." New York City plans to open 200 schools; Chicago, 100. Often, existing nonprofits jump at the opportunity to create schools that embody their own core values. For instance, in Rethinking Schools, Debbie Wei explains how an Asian-American civic group opened a charter school in Philadelphia's Chinatown:

    We decided that if we were to build a school, it had to be a school that was consciously a school for democracy, a school for self-governance, a school for creation of community. We needed to build a school that was consciously anti-individualistic, anti-racist, anti-isolationist, and anti-materialist.

    This is one kind of "themed" small school that's popping up. In her article, Michelle Fine notes that Philadelphia is also encouraging the creation of small "'faith-based' public schools" that collaborate "with Christian colleges and community organizations." Fine is not pleased. She says, "It breaks my heart to see the small schools movement ... used to facilitate ... faith-based education."

    A lot of the impetus for the small schools movement has come from progressive people who are antiracist, anti-materialist, etc, etc. They want to create alternatives to mainstream schools that are further to the left. However, their strategy is to change policies so that nonprofits may open small schools; and inevitably conservative, religious, and pro-military groups (among others) are getting into the act. Reserving small schools for progressive nonprofits would be both unrealistic and unfair.

    My own personal values are aligned with the Philadelphia Chinatown school (to a large degree), not with religious schools. But I see a fundamental parallel; each wants to motivate and inspire kids by promoting a rich and compelling philosophical message. That's putting it nicely. You could also say that both are sufficiently appalled by the power of mainstream culure that they are willing to indoctrinate kids to share their values. I'm enough of a classical liberal that I'd rather educate students in a more neutral way, to allow them to form their own opinions. For example, I wouldn't want to participate in an "anti-individualistic," "anti-materialistic" school. I'd rather teach multiple perspectives on ethics, including religious and libertarian ones.

    However, there's a case for diversity of schools--for letting a thousand flowers bloom. But if we accept the value of diversity, then we must recognize that a lot of the "flowers" that sprout up will not be to our liking.

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    May 12, 2005

    high school reform meeting

    CIRCLE is planning a public event on high school reform for July 6 in Washington. A formal invitation will be circulated shortly, but anyone could contact me to express an interest in attending.

    The National Governors Association recently found that Americas high schools are failing to prepare too many of our students for work and higher education. Even though a diploma is seen as a minimum requirement for entry into the workforce, one third of all adolescents (and half of all African American and Latino students) do not complete high school at all. Many who do graduate are not prepared for the 21st-century economy. Various fundamental reforms are being considered to increase academic success and students economic potential.

    The discussion about high school reform often overlooks schools civic mission, which is to prepare young people to participate in democracy. However, research tells us a great deal about how schools should be organized to achieve civic outcomes.

    Some people believe that one particular reform proposal has both economic and democratic promise. They want to transform traditional, large, omni-purpose, relatively anonymous high schools into institutions of smaller size, with more coherent focus, more student participation, and more connections to the surrounding community.

    On July 6, we plan to discuss the following question: To what extent would such alternatives to traditional large high schools enhance (or block) students academic success and their education for democracy? Speakers will include experts on fundamental school reform, experts on civic education, educators, and students. There will be opportunities for questions and a plenary discussion.

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    May 6, 2005

    realism in civic education

    As the Stanford psychologist William Damon observes, if you ask students to define "democracy," they tend to say that it means equal power for all plus the freedom to do what you want. But freedom and equality are in tension. In a system of one person, one vote, majorities will support laws that constrain individual choice. In a free polity, people will accumulate various forms of capital (cash, knowledge, social networks) that give them unequal political power. Even taken separately, freedom and equality are utopian goals. We don't know how to achieve perfect freedom. A minimal state would leave young people at the mercy of their parents and deprive many citizens of the education and economic security that are the basis of free choice. Yet if we have a government, we do not have perfect private liberty. Likewise, we don't know how to achieve complete political equality. In any commercial system, wealthy people have more political clout than poor people. As Charles Lindblom argued, firms have a "privileged position" because they can always withdraw investments from a community or nation that harms their interests. There seems to be no way around that logic. Even in communist and socialist regimes, party leaders accumulate power and hand it down to their children, as if they owned "the people's" farms and factories. Finally, if we could maximize both freedom and equality, it is not clear that we would want to do so. We also care about prosperity, sustainability, the conservation of nature, pluralism, cultural excellence, community values, and other goods that trade off against each other.

    Young people should think about these tradeoffs, so that they can make intelligent choices and not be disappointed by the failure of utopian hopes. For what it's worth, the following would be something like my own view: We live in a commercial polity that is deeply imbued with, and dependent on, prosperity. In order to have economic growth, it is necessary to cede some political power to the people who make decisions about investments. As a result, they will live better than their fellow citizens. The questions become: Who makes decisions about investments (a few very rich individuals, professional corporate managers, or many investors)? What motivations guide them? (For instance, an educated, landed aristocracy will have different motives from a publicly traded corporation.) And how can we make sure that the power of investors is really used to promote general prosperity rather than very narrow self-interests?

    A "realist" civic education would be quite different from what we give most young people today. It strikes me that standard social studies teaching combines excessive idealism about grand abstract goods with reflexive cynicism about our actual institutions. So young people think that "democracy" means perfect freedom and equality, but "the government" and "politicians" merely answer to the highest bidder. In truth, the modern state does have perverse and corrupt incentives, but it should be measured against a realistic standard.

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    April 22, 2005

    the civic education movement comes of age

    Between 1970 and 2000, most academic researchers said that adults' political and civic behavior was not affected by what they had learned in their schools. In short, civic education didn't work. Meanwhile, schools were moving away from their traditional mission of creating good citizens--among other things, by dropping their courses on civics, government, and contemporary issues. Nevertheless, some nonprofit groups labored to provide good civics textbooks and curricula; some teachers worked hard to implement those programs or ones of their own devising; and a few scholars collected data on civic development.

    Because that body of research and educational work existed, it was possible around 2000-2 to gather the field together in several venues and forums (at the Education Commission of the States, under the aegis of NACE, and then at the invitation of Carnegie Corporation of New York and CIRCLE). At these meetings, the participants agreed that there were specific forms of civic education that worked, as shown by fairly rigorous research; but public policies needed to be changed to allow all students to benefit. One result of those discussions was the launch of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, whose Steering Committee met today.

    At the meeting, which I chaired, we were shown an elaborate website that allows anyone to find civic education "practices" (curricula, programs, etc) by type, state, purpose, or grade level. This website is a useful tool created by the Campaign. More important, it collects much of the valuable work on which the campaign itself is based. The launch of the website is thus a significant symbolic moment for my little community.

    We also saw (most of us for the first time) a set of exam and survey questions that can be used to assess civic learning. These quuestions have been selected by some of my colleagues from hundreds of tests and surveys conducted since 1973. Their collection of vetted and approved questions is another handy tool--and another symbol of past work that supports current and future practice.

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    April 4, 2005

    high schools in a high-risk era (2)

    Here's another take on an issue that I've written about recently, the "rat race" in our high schools:

    We live in an era of expanded opportunities. There are more careers and lifestyles to choose from. Some people have confidence that they can innovate successfully, realizing their private ideas and goals. The "dot-com" expansion of the late 1990s was just an example of that opportunistic spirit.

    The other side of the coin is individualized risk. We don't have as many strong, tight-knit neighborhood communities as we used to. The array of voluntary associations has changed; fewer groups provide guaranteed support in return for long-term commitment. The government's safety net is weaker, and fewer people belong to unions. Corporations don't even pretend to offer long-term job security. Public-sector careers are less desirable than in the past.

    If your job is to educate adolescents in this climate, then you may feel that you must tell them about these opportunities and risks. They cannot rely on peers, communities, or voluntary associations to get ahead. Instead, they must develop marketable skills. A skill or experience that can be recognized formally is better than one that eludes classification.

    There is one national or international employment market; many kids would be smart to get out of their own neighborhoods, family networks, and cities in order to compete in that market. College is the first step out. Public Agenda Foundation recently polled a national sample of young adults and conducted some focus groups of the same population. One young Hispanic man reported the message that he had received from his parents, which was fairly typical: "It's basically, you go to college you get to live well. ... They used to tell me and my brothers and sisters, 'Do you want to be succcessful? Do you want to live in a house? ... Go to college.'"

    Unfortunately, only about two thirds of adolescents (and half of Latinos and African Americans) complete high school; and only about one third attend college. Colleges are arrayed in a national "pecking order" of prestige. They all demand roughly the same skills and experiences from their applicants. Every kid had better try to get into college, and the "best" college he or she can.

    One young adult in the Public Agenda study gave this advice to a younger sibling who is just entering high school: "Know your conselor and tell her, 'This is what I want to do; help me find the best school that I could get into.'" If teachers and counselors fail to teach working class and rural or inner-city kids how to play the game, then those students will have an extra, unfair disadvantage versus the children of yuppies, who understand the rules.

    There are advantages to this new system, but it also has some disadvantages. First, teenagers are being asked to make decisions that have excessively serious long-term consequences. While adults should normally pay the price for decisions we make, it's too much to ask unsupported 14-year-olds to make choices that will affect them 30 years later.

    Second, schools face two basically unpalatable choices. They can try to motivate all their students to play the game as hard and as well as possible (which is difficult and creates intense pressure), or they can serve as "gatekeepers," deciding which kids may take honors courses, which ones may serve on the school newspaper, which ones may apply to Harvard. Then schools have enormous power.

    Third, everything seems to matter only for its impact on adult life. Kids don't learn because subjects are interesting; they don't participate in extracurricular groups because they're fun. Instead, they do what they need for their resumes. In the Public Agenda survey, 49% of young adults said that college is most important because it provides "a credential that employers with good jobs look for"; 26% said that it's important because it "helps make you a responsible adult"; and 23% say it's important because it provides "real skills."

    Finally, this kind of pressure is not good for civic learning, because it doesn't reward students for caring about their immediate surroundings--their peers and communities. It doesn't teach cooperation. It doesn't emphasize shared or public problems, because the only goal is to impart individualized "human capital" for the marketplace.

    If all this is roughly right, then the question is: Can high schools be redesigned so that they promote collaboration, equity and mixing, concern for community, and civic skills? Will that kind of reform simply leave working class kids at a disadvantage in the race against yuppy children whose parents know how to make sure they obtain "human capital"? Or can small "learning communities," authentic "service opportunities," and "community-based learning," make life better for all adolescents?

    In some ways, this is the heart of the debate about high school reform, as reflected in recent public statements by Margaret Spellings, Diane Ravitch, and others. The key question is: Must we ratchet up the pressure on all students (and their teachers) so that everyone gets off to a better start in the marketplace? Or can we make high schools a partial refuge from an intensely competitive world in order to enhance other values?

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    March 23, 2005

    high schools in a high-risk era

    (Macon, Georgia) At last weekend's meeting, we discussed economic insecurity and its effects on young people. Many high school students believe (whether or not it's true) that their lifetime prospects of earning satisfactory wages depend on their climbing as high as possible on a ladder that ascends from their local community college to the branch campus of their state university, on to the flagship state school and regional private colleges, and then all the way up to the summits of Harvard and MIT. Their sense of insecurity and omnipresent risk (some scholars argue) leads to a "rat-race" mentality in which everything they do only matters if they can put it on their resumes and use it for admission to college. They feel compelled to obtain marks of success that they can advertise. They see other students as competitors and doubt that local groups and networks have much value.

    To the extent that these generalizations apply, they could help to explain some well-documented findings: young people have low and declining trust for their peers and they are less likely to join formal voluntary groups than in the past. Increasing numbers of adolescents report that they volunteer, but often their participation is episodic (see pdf); and many cannot explain to interviewers why they serve. Some admit that they are basically "padding" their resumes. There may be a sense of hollowness in today's adolescence, as if what you do when you're 16 is simply practice--a competitive "try-out"--for life that really begins after graduation.

    Any change in this situation would presumably require economic growth, greater financial security, and more sharing of risk. After all, real family income has been basically flat since the early 1970s, and families are shouldering more individualized risk as unions shrink and health coverage gets worse. These trends could have negative effects on adolescents' sense of security, mutual trust, and concern for their communities.

    I'm afraid there is not much that I can do (or participate in doing) that can mitigate such pervasive social problems. However, I am trying to become involved in the debate about high school reform, and lately I've wondered whether comprehensive reform might make a positive difference. After all, today's large, anonymous high schools are relentless sorting mechanisms. Their wide variety of courses, extracurricular activities, and social groups create numerous internal competitions and hierarchies. Students are left to make their own choices among these offerings. If they aren't ambitious enough, then they cannot ascend very high on the college hierarchy; but it's just as damaging if they aim too high and get poor grades. Since young people see their performance as having dire economic consequences, they agonize about how to make themselves look successful.

    Again, the high school "rat-race" is largely a phenomenon of increased insecurity and individualized risk in the broader economy. Nevertheless, it seems possible that students would feel more comfortable and fulfilled if they attended small high schools with coherent, required curricula, lots of opportunities for participation in diverse groups, partnerships with adult institutions, and guidance from teachers who knew them as individuals. These are hallmarks of whole-school reform.

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    March 9, 2005

    student government

    Research by Daniel McFarland and Carlos Starmanns finds that there's a great variation in the quality of high school student governments. Some have elaborate and evolving constitutions that establish significant powers for students over budgets and discipline. Others are merely clubs whose members are chosen in popularity contests. This is an important issue, because research since the 1960s has consistently found that students are more committed to democracy and have better skills if their schools offer student "voice."

    In general, the wealthier the school's population, the more power is given to its student government. However ...

    Alternative schoolscharter, magnet or privateseem to offer opportunities for meaningful political participation greater than even the wealthiest public schools. Student councils typically consist of 20 to 40 officers, regardless of school size, so these generally smaller schools enable a greater percentage of students to hold office. And because alternative schools tend to have a clear mission, their constitutions try to uphold school valuesby encouraging the election of moral exemplars, for example. However, alternative schools also tend to give faculty tighter control over students (including reins on elections), leading McFarland and Starmanns to wonder whether such schools raise citizens who are not used to thinking for themselves.

    I'm interested in whether it's the poverty of neighborhoods or low per-pupil spending that seems, all else being equal, to predict a weak or non-existent student government. We at CIRCLE plan to do some simple statistical analysis to evaluate whether the level of per-capita school spending correlates with students' civic engagement, controlling for other factors. If schools without adequate funds tend to sacrifice student government, that would be one of several ways in which low funding could hamper civic education.

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    February 27, 2005

    civic education: the case for smaller schools

    The nation's governors met this weekend to discuss high school reform. They identified real problems, including a high-school completion rate of only about 70% and a set of curricula and standards that obviously aren't working. But their conversation apparently focused on preparing students for work and college--not citizenship. They called for regular standardized testing rather than reform of schools themselves. I was hoping for more emphasis on school size, which is a signature issue of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Bill Gates himself addressed the governors and said:

    The three Rs [rigor, relevance, and relationships] are almost always easier to promote in smaller high schools. The smaller size gives teachers and staff the chance to create an environment where students achieve at a higher level and rarely fall through the cracks. Students in smaller schools are more motivated, have higher attendance rates, feel safer, and graduate and attend college in higher numbers.

    He was right, but the governors mainly focused their attention on standards and accountability.

    The average size of American primary and secondary schools increased four-fold between 1940 and 1965, from 100 to more than 400 (see this pdf, p. 26). Toward the end of that period (1959), James Conant identified small high schools as the single biggest problem in American education. He argued that they were economically inefficient, unprofessional, and unable to provide a wide range of equipment and specialized teachers. In addition to these arguments, other factors probably contributed to massive school consolidation in that era, including a tendency to close down historically black schools under court desegregation orders (not to mention the desire to field better football teams).

    The result was the creation of very large schools, especially high schools, in which students were seen as consumers who should be permitted to choose among a wide variety of offerings (curricular and extracurricular) provided by specialists. Students were presumed to have diverse interests and abilities. Thus it was right that some should choose student government and AP courses while others preferred "shop" and basketball.

    If we hope to create effective, committed, and responsible citizens, huge schools have several marked disadvantages. Relatively few students--mostly ones who are already on a successful track--can possibly participate in the extracurricular activities, such as school government and scholastic journalism, that seem most likely to teach civic skills. Students in large schools tend to self-select into cliques and can avoid interacting with those different from themselves. Parents and other adults in the community have little impact on these large, bureaucratic institutions; so schools are rarely models of community problem-solving or active citizenship, nor can they create paths to participation in the broader world. We know that students who feel that they can have an impact on the governance of their own schools tend to be efficacious and interested in public affairs; but it is impossible for anyone to influence the overall atmosphere and structure of a huge school that is organized around private choice.

    Finally, young people become victims of their own choices. You can pick up civic skills (as well as other ones) if you attend a school with a wide range of offerings and equipment and you elect to take the honors classes and work on the school newspaper. But those assets are of no use unless you have the confidence, motivation, networks ties, and knowledge to use them. In a huge high school, there is little chance that any adult will try to steer a student who is on a mediocre track onto a more challenging one. Twenty years later, the student who chose easy courses and avoided clubs may still be paying a price, economically as well as socially and politically.

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    February 23, 2005

    reading and civics

    It's hard to modify the current regime for elementary education in America, which revolves around annual high-stakes tests in a few subjects. However, without changing the fundamental structure now in place, we could infuse civic ideas and values in reading education. In general, there is a remarkable lack of nonfiction in early reading texts. According to studies summarized in this article, nonfiction represented just 12 percent of the texts included in five major basal reading series for first grade. "Furry-animal stories" dominate. A survey of 83 primary school teachers found that just 6 percent of the material discussed or used in their classrooms was factual.

    However, students perform better on existing reading assessments if they have had practice reading in a variety of genres, including history, news, and science as well as fiction. Thus schools should incorporate more social studies into k-8 education as a strategy for complying with existing "No Child Left Behind" reading requirements. As a very important by-product of reading about George Washington, Rosa Parks, or Nelson Mandela, civic knowledge and skills should also increase.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: advocating civic education

    February 9, 2005

    the president's budget and civic education

    The Bush Administration's budget proposal for education is available online. For those concerned about civic learning, here are two key points:

  • Funding for the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools is cut in half, from $672 million to $317 million. This is the office that manages character and civic education, including grants to produce curricular materials, train teachers, etc.
  • The budget makes high school reform a major priority. There will be a big fight over what that means. Some believe that the standards-and-accountability regime that's now in place for grades 3-8 should be extended upward to grades 9-12; others think that high schools should be made smaller, more various, and more connected to communities. In principle, we could do both; but in practice, there are likely to be major tradeoffs between the two approaches. For one thing, a standards-and-accountability regime will drive schools toward standardization, which will make it more difficult for them to develop idiosyncratic curricular themes, such as public service or American history. Many in the "civic ed" world see great promise in small, themed high schools, especially ones that emphasize civic values.

    The budget is somewhat ambiguous about how to reform secondary education. On one hand, the title of the relevant subhead is "Finishing the Job: Bringing NCLB to High Schools," and money is earmarked for mandatory "testing in grades 911 in language arts and math." On the other hand, the following passage implies some flexibility:

  • This initiative provides $1.2 billion to help States implement a high school accountability framework and a wide range of effective interventions. In return for a commitment to improve academic achievement and graduation rates for secondary school students, States will receive the flexibility to choose which intervention strategies will be most effective in serving the needs of their at-risk high school students. Allowable activities would include vocational education programs, mentoring programs, and partnerships between high schools and colleges, among other approaches. A portion of the funding will be used for randomized trials and evaluations to identify the most effective intervention strategies to enable school administrators to make better choices on what educational strategies to adopt."

    I read this as a negotiated statement. Those who simply want high-stakes testing to be expanded through the 12th grade probably have the upper hand, but they have made some room for people who see other ways to reform high schools.

    [cross-posted from the CMS Community blog]

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    February 2, 2005

    on "constructivism" in education

    "Constructivism" is one of the most influential words in the whole jargon of education--and a highly divisive one. It is a rallying-cry for many progressive educators and reformers, but an irritant to conservatives. Constructivists oppose the kind of scene in which a teacher stands before a disciplined class of children and endlessly tells them what is true. But they oppose that pegagogy for a variety of overlapping reasons, some of which I find more persuasive than others.

    Creativity: Constructivists often see traditional pedagogy as excessively passive, because children are given everything ready-made in textbooks or by teachers. They want children to be creative, to generate their own works of art, narratives (including factual ones), rules and norms, clubs and other organizations, and social or service projects.

    Child-centeredness: Constructivists often want educators to recognize the interests, goals, and "learning styles" of children at particular ages and in particular communities. Teachers are then supposed to tailor classroom experiences in order to capture kids' imaginations and interests. Education should "start where the kids are."

    Pluralism: Constructivists emphasize that interests, values, and dispositions differ according to the culture, gender, and social class of students. Thus they oppose standardization, as epitomized by textbooks and "standardized" tests.

    Experimentalism: Some constructivists want children to discover facts and methods through experimentation, not wait to be given answers. So, for example, it is better for students to re-discover an algorithm for solving a type of mathematical problem than simply to be taught how to solve it. According to constructivists, kids will remember and be able to apply the method better if they have "made" it themselves.

    Holism: Constructivists oppose the separation of intellectual learning from social and emotional learning and ethical development. They see traditional pedagogy as narrow and dismissive of the "whole child."

    Democracy: Many constructivists argue that democracy should not only be an outcome of education, but also an aspect of it. Students should share authority and responsibility in schools and classrooms (to various degrees) with adults.

    Relativism/Skepticism: It is very common for constructivists to deny explicitly that there is any objective truth. They claim that people or cultures "construct" their own truths. Since many truths have been constructed, none is more objective or valid than the others.

    I'd like to unpack educational "constructivism" into its components, because I admire some and quite strongly dislike others. For example, I'm in favor of creativity; this is a core value for me. However, I think it's an empirical question whether children use and remember knowledge best if they have re-discovered it for themselves. This may only be true of some knowledge and some children. Likewise, I think it's an empirical question whether democratically organized classrooms and schools produce the most competent and committed democratic citizens. They may, or they may not.

    Relativism is my least favorite part of the constructivist package. Constructivists often deploy a relativist "epistemology" in the belief that it supports their practices. They favor creativity, democracy, experimentialism, holism, pluralism, and child-centerdness. They see "positivism" as the enemy of all these good things, and relativism as the one alternative to positivism that can support their pedagogy. The classic positivists believed that there were objective, verifiable, empirical (or "positive") facts, in contrast to theories, values, and metaphysical statements, which were merely subjective. In contrast, "constructivists hypothesize that it is the subject who actually invents reality and that knowledge is tied to an internal-subjective perspective where truth is replaced by ways of knowing."

    But reality is obdurate. We can invent some things, but other things are real whether we like them or not. Although classical positivism is flawed, there are many ways to defend objectivity without being a positivist. No serious thinker has ever believed that the objective world is obvious, directly apprehended by reason, and uncontroversial. But denying it would be equally foolish. Thus I'm very unimpressed by assertions that "subjects invent reality."

    Moreover, I think it's ethically bankrupt to pretend that people or groups can and should make up their own worlds. There are many white communities in which everyone would like to believe that chattel slavery was pleasant--or, at the very least, they would like to ignore it completely. The vicious wickedness of slavery is not part of their lifeworld. But it should be. If everyone "constructs" reality and individuals may decide what knowledge they want to create, then we have no right to challenge people to face uncomfortable realities.

    In fact, relativism is bad for "constructivism," because two of constructivism's best components, experimentalism and democracy, require individuals to deal with a world outside themselves--a world not of their creation and not under their control.

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: advocating civic education , education policy

    February 1, 2005

    students and the First Amendment

    Ive spent the last day and a half in the magnificent 23nd floor offices of the First Amendment Center, which provide the most panoramic view of the National Mall. We have been discussing a new Knight Foundation report on students and the free press. As you might expect, American adolescents poorly understandand undervaluethe free speech and free press clauses of the First Amendment. For example, just over half (51%) agree that newspapers should able to freely publish without government approval of each story. However, those students who have studied the Constitution and/or worked for school newspapers and other youth media are relatively likely to support freedom of the press.

    This is an important study, especially for its details. (The executive summarywhich describes adolescents general lack of knowledge and interestwill surprise no one.) However, some of the presenters, by decrying our clueless kids, simply reminded me why I prefer a different approach.

    First of all, many of us have learned that education should be asset-based. Given any topic (knowledge of history or science, sexual behavior, concern for the environment, religious piety, voting, grammar) you can always show that average kids have too little knowledge and interest. After discovering such deficits, adults typically call for campaigns to raise students consciousness or change their behavior. These campaigns typically fail. But one can start in a different place, by recognizing that students are capable of tremendously creative and innovative and excellent work. Then the question becomes: How can we support and encourage such work? Incidentally, Knight has supported some of the best student journalism and student expression work in America, through the First Amendment Schools initiative, J-Ideas, and other initiatives.

    Second, we should consider a genuine dialogue with students who have opted not to use traditional news media. I spend more than an hour of every day reading several newspapers in hard copy and online. Obviously, I think that at least some reporting is worthy of my time and attention. At the same time, I see very serious flaws in mainstream news media. The most prominent media (local television news, brief news updates on the radio, and chain newspapers) are particularly bad. So could it be that students are at least partly right to shun the press? Note that they could be partly right and partly wrong, in which case a dialogue might be productive for both sides.

    Third, students must have a sense of political efficacy in order to take the news seriously. During the Freedom Forum event, ABC News Carole Simpson said that she is traveling around the country trying to persuade kids to pay attention to issues like Iraq and outsourcing. She tells them that these issues will affect them. But there is a missing piece in her argument. Why should you follow the news, even if it threatens to affect you personally, unless you feel you can do something about current events? For example, imagine that Iraq is going to turn into a quagmire, and todays 16-year-olds will be drafted to fight over there. Even if this were true (which I doubt), a teenager still shouldnt bother informing himself unless he thinks that he can help to solve the problem. Political powerlessness, or the feeling thereof, inevitably discourages people from consuming news.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: advocating civic education

    January 25, 2005

    high school reform

    I don't know as much about high school reform as I should, but I am picking up the following ideas.

    First, over the next five years or so, high schools will be the topic of the most interesting debates and reforms in all of education. For elementary and middle schools, we have a regime in place, as codified in No Child Left Behind (NCLB). There are frequent statewide tests; scores are disaggregated by race, gender, disability, and language background; and every group must make "adequate yearly progress" on the tests or else schools face penalties. Like it or hate it, this is the status quo for grades 1-8; only adjustments are possible.

    The formula embodied in NCLB doesn't affect high schools nearly as deeply, yet there is widespread agreement that they should be thoroughly reformed. In particular, many people criticize huge, themeless, "shopping mall" high schools that offer long lists of courses and activities (as well as cliques and networks) for a wide variety of students. Kids who enter on a very good track or who have positive support from peers and family may make wise choices about their courses, friends, extracurricular activities, and next steps after graduation. Other students will make bad--or inconsistent and incoherent--choices, and then pay for their own adolescent decisions for the rest of their lives. "Shopping mall" high schools also tend to have reasonably bad discipline, a general atmosphere of alienation, and lots of internal segregation by race, class, and subculture. Often, they occupy suburban-style campuses, set far apart from the adult community of work, family, religion, and politics. (The school where I often work serves a low-income minority population, yet it has an isolated building on a great big lawn.) Even worse, some of these huge schools occupy prison-like urban blocks, secured with gates and bars.

    Most developmental pyschologists feel that adolescents need more moral and cultural coherence and guidance than the typical high school provides. Teenagers are not in much danger of being brainwashed by a strong institutional culture; rebellion comes naturally to them. They are in danger of becoming completely alienated and lost in an institution that lacks values and mission.

    It's fine to let students choose among competing schools. Some students will do better in a school oriented toward scientific research, or service-learning, or the great books. But the choice should be carefully made among coherent, purposeful communities, not "a la carte" off a miscellaneous list of courses and other experiences. Perhaps more important, almost all schools should be small, so that no student is overlooked or forgotten.

    Thus we see the Gates Foundation and major school districts like New York City investing heavily in small, themed schools, many of which connect academic instruction to internships or community service. High school reform, so conceived, has risks and drawbacks. Students may choose schools in ways that reinforce inequality. For example, children of lawyers and doctors may migrate to the "great books" schools; poor children, to service-learning academies. Some schools will choose foolish ideas for their themes or will implement their ideas poorly. Finally, it takes many small schools to replace a few huge ones. While the small ones are being built (and this will inevitably take years), most students will be left in the old "shopping malls," which may degenerate further because they will be slated for destruction--and the more motivated students will escape first. Nevertheless, I think high school reform is highly promising, and we need to figure out how to do it right.

    permanent link | comments (3) | category: advocating civic education

    January 19, 2005

    a blog just for civic education

    Readers of this site know that I often discuss "civic education," broadly defined--all our efforts to prepare the next generation for democratic self-government. In the narrower (but crucial) domain of formal, pre-college civic education, an important force is the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, which has several million dollars to advocate policy changes at the state and federal level. As of yesterday, the Campaign has established its own blog. The main authors will be members of our steering committee (who are leaders of two dozen relevant organizations), key members of the national staff, and people from the Campaign's 18 state teams. A graduate student who works for me under the aegis of the National Alliance for Civic Education (NACE) will post news items on the Campaign's blog almost daily. Of course, anyone can post replies and comments. If civic ed is your thing, please bookmark and contribute.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: advocating civic education

    January 14, 2005

    what should we expect from local work?

    When students frame, study, and address local problems, they are likely to acquire local knowledge. For example, if a high school class studies a nearby watershed, develops a restoration plan, and presents it to the local government, the students will surely learn more about the watershed itself. I see three ways of assessing such learning.

    1) Maybe the only point of education is to develop knowledge, skills, and dispositions that would apply anywhere. Thus students in the imaginary watershed project should understand science better (thus scoring higher on instruments like the NAEP Science Assessment) and also perform better on CIRCLE's "Indicators of Civic Engagement," which measures behaviors like voting, following the news, and attending meetings. We might also expect them to stay in school longer and have fewer disciplinary problems.
    2) Maybe we should expect students to improve along dimensions that aren't well measured by existing standardized tests and surveys--but that could be so measured. For example, engagement with local problems over time could increase students' teamwork skills, capacity for public speaking, etc. These are generalized outcomes that we may not value sufficiently; but we could assess them.
    3) Or maybe we should be glad that students have learned about the watershed itself. After all, nowhere is it written that the proper unit of analysis is always the nation. Just as we would like Americans to understand the Bill of Rights, so we might like residents of a county to understand the source of their own water--not because this knowledge will apply elsewhere or lead students to acquire generalized knowledge later on, but because it is valuable in itself.

    If the third option holds any appeal, then it raises new questions about standardized tests. Almost by definition, they cannot adequately value local knowledge.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: advocating civic education

    January 13, 2005

    "community as text"

    Last night and today, I'm attending a meeting organized by the Coalition for Community Schools. The Coalition has convened representatives of six movements:

  • service learning: community service combined with academic work and reflection

  • environmental education: studying environmental science and applying the knowledge to understand local ecosystems

  • place-based education: studying local communities in order to increase appreciation (as well as knowledge) of disparaged places, such as poor rural areas

  • civic education, which should include the study of local issues and structures of government

  • work-based learning, as defined in the School to Work Opportunities Act of 1990, which supports programs that place students in job settings for academic study.

  • community youth development: which treats young people as assets in community development, and trains and supports them to participate in local organizations and networks.

  • Each of these movements or philosophies of education treats the local community as a "text" for students to interpret--and, to some degree, "rewrite." There are many examples and stories of truly exciting results. For example, students in a Texas border school district conducted oral histories of their elderly, immigrant relatives, translated the results into English, and used the resulting English/Spanish narratives as textbooks in their schools. On the other hand, using "community-as-text" is hard and often frustrating work, especially when communities do not embrace the participation of students.

    In the end, I think that using the "community as text" is one of several strategies that can bring coherence, purpose, and passion to education. It is not better than an arts focus, a global-cultures focus, a history focus, a tech focus, or various other choices. I do believe, however, that it implies its own set of principles and values, which can be particularly attractive in certain settings. For example, we are motivated to use the community as text in Prince George's County, MD, because the students are growing up in a fascinating jurisdiction--diverse and rapidly changing--yet people of all ages tend to overlook or discount it as a community. Thus studying the county and disseminating the results is a means of (much needed) community organizing.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: advocating civic education

    December 10, 2004

    civics legislation

    Senator Lamar Alexander's bill S. 504 has now passed both houses of Congress and is on its way to the President.

    Last year, I described how this bill was temporarily scuttled by Gun Owners of America, who claimed that the legislation was "anti-gun." Their model letter to Congress said, "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 right."

    In fact, the bill makes no mention of We the People, and that text is judiciously even-handed in its treatment of the Second Amendment (which is precisely the problem, from the perspective of Gun Owners of America). Anyway, Senator Alexander (R-TN) and Representative Roger Wicker (R-MI) persevered and their bill passed. According to the email announcement I received:

    American History and Civics Education Act of 2004 - Authorizes the Secretary of Education to award up to 12 grants, on a competitive basis, to entities with demonstrated expertise in historical methodology or the teaching of history to establish: (1) Presidential Academies for Teaching of American History and Civics that may offer workshops for both veteran and new teachers of such subjects; and (2) Congressional Academies for Students of American History and Civics. Allows such grants to be made from funds appropriated for FY 2005 or any subsequent fiscal year for the Secretary's Fund for the Improvement of Education.

    Authorizes the Secretary to award grants to the National History Day Program to continue and expand its activities to promote the study of history and improve instruction.

    Meanwhile, apparently, Senator Byrd has inserted into the omnibus federal spending bill a clause that requires all schools and colleges to devote the whole of Sept. 17 every year to teaching the Constitution. While I believe that it is helpful to study and discuss the Constitution, it would be unprecedented for Congress to mandate any allocation of school time. If the Byrd amendment passes, you can imagine days being mandated for all kinds of purposes. I would think the Constitution itself suggests a little more respect for state and local discretion.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: advocating civic education

    December 7, 2004

    public attitudes toward civics

    The Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools has launched a spiffy website loaded with information. (The Campaign must really exist if we have a website.) On the homepage are the results of a new survey that we conducted jointly with the Alliance for Representative Democracy. It's a survey of public attitudes toward civic education. There is much good news, including the fact that 71% of adults consider it important to "prepare students to be competent and responsible citizens who participate in our democratic society." (There was no tradeoff question, however, which asked them to say whether they would put less money or time into basic math, reading, and science skills in order to enhance citizenship education.) In any event, I was somewhat disturbed by the answers to an open-ended question about "the most important reason for including civic education programs in k-12 public schools." My favorite reasons--encouraging civic or political involvement, preparing better leaders, and sustaining democracy--were mentioned by 13% of respondents, total. The most popular answer was "making better members of society." This result is consistent with research from focus groups in which many parents said that civic education was a way to improve the personal behavior of other people's children.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: advocating civic education

    October 22, 2004

    a powerful argument for civics

    Excellent education in history and civics is necessary to achieve the reading goals of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). That was a theme in today's discussions of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, which I chaired. The argument goes like this:

    1. You can prepare kids to achieve "basic" levels on the fourth grade reading assessment by teaching them skills such as phonics and decoding. But you cannot get them past "basic" at fourth grade, or to any level of competence at the eighth and twelfth grade, without giving them lots of good texts to read and comprehend. They need experience in comprehension. And they need a store of knowledge derived from reading--in other words, some form of "cultural literacy."
    2. Therefore, achieving the reading goals of NCLB requires high-quality instruction in such fields as literature, natural science, history, social science, and current events. Indeed, it requires high-quality instruction in all of those areas, because a narrow curriculum will generate readers with narrow competence.

    People who like NCLB should agree with this argument, but so should people who think that NCLB is too much of an unfunded mandate or that it puts too much emphasis on high-stakes tests. These critics also want students to read.

    Philosophically, one might argue that teaching civics in order to enhance reading skills is putting the cart before the horse. Public schools were founded with a civic mission, and teaching history and social studies requires no justification other than a civic one. I suppose I agree with this, but I'm a practical person who just happens to hold a philosophy Ph.D. I see an enormous practical opportunity here for people who are concerned about the future of our democracy.

    Policymakers want kids to read. They measure reading with the NAEP reading assessment (which I believe to be a good instrument). Students will score at "proficient" levels on the NAEP only if they learn to comprehend historical and social texts. So we'd better invest time and effort in teaching history and social studies. As a crucial side-effect, we will produce more capable political and civic agents for the future.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: advocating civic education

    September 10, 2004

    civic learning in dark times

    (On the shuttle to New York): I gave a speech this morning to the state directors of Youth for Justice programs. These are federally-funded initiatives to teach young people about the law, through courses, classroom visits by lawyers and judges, and youth courtsamong other methods. I spoke about civic education. I hesitate to blog about my comments, because we are in the middle of an intense presidential campaign, terror and war are all around us, and Im sure that many readers will click right past a blog entry about civic ed. But maybe this is a good time to remind ourselves that our Republic will endure, no matter who wins the presidency, and we need to get on with the perpetual work of preparing the next generation. Possibly the election is more important than civic education (or possibly it isnt); but in any case I would rather discuss and try to make positive change in a limited domain, rather than play the role of a tense and horrified spectator of national politics.

    So, in my speech, I began by offering a personal definition of civic learning. This is a phrase that, according to our recent focus group research, is more politically palatable than civic education. (The latter phrase connotes boring lectures about how a bill becomes a law.) In any case, learning is the point; formal instruction is just one opportunity to learn.

    In my view, civic learning means learning to work together on common problems, whether through government, private voluntary associations, or even informal networks such as those that develop in neighborhoods. It may seem communitarian or statist to emphasize the importance of working together. Not so. Even libertarians, the staunchest defenders of individual liberty and uncoordinated private behavior, must value civic learning. That is because:

  • they want some public institutions, such as juries and a volunteer military, to work very wellor else criminals and foreign enemies will threaten our liberty;

  • they want many people to value freedom, diversity, and tolerance for allor else their fellow citizens will constrain their liberty; and

  • they want people to solve most of their problems through voluntary action in local communitiesor else the demand for government will rise.
  • Progressives favor civic learning for somewhat different reasons, but there is a lot of overlap. (Progressives also need people to solve most problems through voluntary action, because government can only do so much.) And all sides should want there to be an informed, thoughtful, public-spirited debate about how best to address public problems: through the state, market competition, or voluntary collaboration.

    Civic learning should build:

  • knowledge, of government, of non-governmental organizations, of local communities., of social issues and processes, of other peoples beliefs, values, and needs;

  • skills, such as discussing and analyzing issues, persuading other people, participating in meetings, running organizations; and

  • attitudes, such as some concern for the common good, some sense of efficacy, tolerance, trust.
  • It is not in individuals self-interest to develop these attributes, nor do they come naturally. For example, many of the skills needed for working together in groups are counter-intuitive and must be learned through experience or as a result of deliberate instruction. This is why associations have always taught each rising generation civic skills. Given the weaker associations we have today, we need better civic learning in schools.

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: advocating civic education

    September 9, 2004

    Streetlaw, Inc.

    Today I was named to the Board of Streetlaw, Inc., a nonprofit that produces the nation's most popular high school textbook for "law-related education," conducts an annual teacher's institute at the Supreme Court, supports youth courts (in which adolescents actually sentence their peers), and runs various international programs, among many other services. Streetlaw is 32 years old and is one of the important independent associations that provide materials and training for civic education. (The Center for Civic Education, the Constitutional Rights Foundation, and the Bill of Rights Institute are other examples.) In general, there is no shortage of good curricula, textbooks, electronic simulations, program guides, and other materials. The bigger challenges are getting those materials used in schools and providing teachers with adequate training and support to use them.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: advocating civic education

    August 19, 2004

    a milestone for civic education

    I chair the Steering Committee of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools. Today the Campaign announced that we are making "six $150,000 grants to promote civic learning in the public schools of Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina and Pennsylvania." The press release explains:

    The Campaign is a major national initiative to renew and restore a core purpose of public education preparing Americas young people to be informed and active citizens in our democracy. It is funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and managed by the Council for Excellence in Government in partnership with the Academy for Educational Development. The Campaign endorses a comprehensive approach to civic learning, with schools not only being places where young people acquire knowledge but where they also are exposed to all facets of citizenship through experiential activities that instill civic knowledge, skill, and behavior.

    The grants were awarded through a rigorous national competition, with the six winning coalitions selected from 36 state proposals. Each grant covers a two-year period beginning in November and will help support the work of state-level coalitions organized to advance the cause of civic learning.

    This is a milestone for a Campaign thats only six months old, David Skaggs, Executive Director of the Campaign and former Congressman from Colorado, said in announcing the grants. Over the next two years we expect these state coalitions to show what can be done to restore civic learning to a central place in our schools. ...

    The Campaigns work is grounded in the Civic Mission of Schools report and is guided by a Steering Committee composed of representatives from some 40 national organizations active in the field. These organizations have a variety of missions and emphases but are working collaboratively to develop a richer, comprehensive approach to civic learning.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: advocating civic education

    August 2, 2004

    teaching the teachers

    I'm just back from Washington College in Chestertown, MD (a classic liberal arts college), where I taught social studies teachers a little about liberalism and classic republicanism--a standard topic in political theory. I presented liberalism as the combination of the following five ideas:

    1. "Individualism," meaning (specifically) that each and every government institution must make every individual better off than he or she would be otherwise, or else it is oppressive.
    2. Politics is a necessary evil, the price of living in a community.
    3. The private realm can be clearly distinguished from the public realm, and only the latter may be regulated.
    4. The state should not make people good, nor do we need good people to have a good government. A decent polity can instead be preserved through checks-and-balances and other constitutional mechanisms.
    5. The government should be neutral with respect to various ways of life, unless those ways of life involve one person violating the rights of another.

    Civic republicanism is then a particular criticism of liberalism that says:

    1. Political communities have intrinsic value, and are not merely "cooperative venture[s] for mutual advantage (John Rawls).
    2. Politics is desirable and advantageous, because it's the only place where people can exhibit certain excellences, such as public spiritedness, eloquence, and patriotism.
    3. The so-called private realm is often a legitimate public concern. For example, the state should support educational institutions that (to some degree) shape private opinions and beliefs.
    4. A good government can only exist where citizens are fairly virtuous; and promoting virtues is an appopriate role for the state.
    5. The government should favor certain ways of life over others. Above all, the state should honor lives of public service and civic engagement.

    Although almost everyone feels some affinity for both sets of propositions, it's much harder to make civic republicanism plausible for an American audience than to persuade them of liberalism.

    permanent link | comments (2) | category: advocating civic education

    July 21, 2004

    young people of color and "efficacy"

    Yesterday, I talked to about 60 high school social studies teachers who are funded by the Annenberg Foundation to conduct an innovative civic education program. After I spoke, one teacher noted a chart in the Civic Mission of Schools report (p. 19), showing how many young people believe they "can make a difference solving problems in [their] community." The teacher noted that the statistics weren't too good for any group, but they were particularly low for African American and Latino students. He asked me why.

    I said that it really is harder for most Black and Hispanic kids to make a difference, partly because of discrimination against them personally, but mainly because of the difficult problems they are likely to face in their home communities. If you ask an affluent suburban kid whether he believes he can make a difference, he'll think of a "community problem" and imagine addressing it. Perhaps it's the lack of a skateboard park; and if he really wanted to do something about that, he could talk to a friend of his mother's who's on the town council. So yes, he could make a difference. If you ask an inner-city kid, she thinks, "What are some community problems? Let's see, there's unemployment, homelessness, gun violence, drugs, and AIDS. What can I do?" Chances are, she'll be pessimistic about making a difference.

    The problem is, "efficacy" (or more simply, hope and optimism) is a powerful predictor of actual participation. So if people lack efficacy, they don't vote or organize. Thus we want young people to develop confidence, yet we can't do it by preaching that they can easily "make a difference." That just isn't a plausible message. A lot of the discussion that ensued for the next half-hour concerned practical strategies for increasing efficacy (and persistence) without papering over problems.

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: advocating civic education

    July 13, 2004

    assessment woes

    Im on the advisory board of a program for adolescents thats organized by Temple University in Philadelphia, the Middlesex County Community College in New Jersey, and Georgetown University in Washington, DC. I went to Temple today to help plan the programs evaluation.

    This group faces the same problems that bedevil my colleagues and me when we try to evaluate our work with kids in Maryland. Their program is too short (at 50 total hours) to cause substantial changes in the kind of indicators that CIRCLE has collected. With so little instructional time, no one wants to spend hours on evaluation. Because it's a fairly small group of students, any changes in their responses to a questionnaire between the start and conclusion of the program are unlikely to meet statistical tests of significance. The population in the three sites ranges from adolescents with criminal records (in DC) to 5-to-12 year olds (in New Jersey), so it makes no sense to combine all the sites data. If students do improve, its impossible to tell whether the program is responsible. The best way to tell would be to recruit a larger group of students and to randomly assign some of them to participate in the program and some (the control group) to be assessed without participating. But theres neither the money nor the will to organize a control group.

    The goal of the projects organizers is to make students more capable of sticking up for themselves politically. They want their students to become confident and to know where to go for political help. Graduates of the program should also be able to work effectively with peers in a political context. With these goals in mind, I suggested conducting the same educational exercise on the first and last day of the program, videotaping the results, and asking an outsider to reflect on any differences. Students would be asked to work in small groups to plan a response to a hypothetical local problem, such as a dangerous street corner or a lack of basketball courts. The small groups would report their plans to the whole class both in writing and orally. Between the beginning and the end of the 50-hour program, we would expect the students political plans to improve; we would hope that they would become more optimistic about their chances of success; and we would expect them to share the planning, writing, and oral presentation more equitably within their small groups.

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    May 25, 2004

    Stanley Fish vs. civic engagement

    Last Friday, Stanley Fish wrote an essay in the New York Times attacking the "Civic Responsibility of Higher Education" and everything that document stands for. Fish is a brilliant Milton critic, controversialist, and builder of academic empires. It's said that he's proud to be the model for Morris Zapp, the cigar-chomping, aphorism-dispensing, fast-car-driving, bed-hopping hero/villain of two David Lodge novels, whose ambitions include being the best paid English professor in the world and saying everything that can possibly be said about Jane Austen, so that everyone else will have to shut up about her. The "Civic Responsibility of Higher Education," meanwhile, is a sober and idealistic statement of the university's role in democracy, written by some distinguished members of my organization's Advisory Board and signed by 528 college presidents.

    Fish raises some valid concerns. Those of us who work to enhance the civic purposes of higher education must keep in mind the dangers of that enterprise. Colleges are not necessarily good at creating active citizens. Trying to motivate young people to be active in civil society and politics can undermine the search for truth. Scholars can squander their credibility by opining on issues beyond their competence. Tom Ehrlich, one of the authors of "The Civic Responsibility of Higher Education," quotes a similar warning written by Judge Learned Hand in his magnificent style:

    You cannot raise the standard against oppression, or leap into the breach to relieve injustice, and still keep an open mind to every disconcerting fact, or an open ear to the cold voice of doubt. I am satisfied that a scholar who tries to combine those parts sells his birthright for a mess of pottage; that, when the final count is made, it will be found that the impairment of his powers far outweighs any possible contribution to the causes he has espoused. If he is fit to serve in his calling at all, it is only because he has learned not to serve in any other, for his singleness of mind quickly evaporates in the fires of passions, however holy. ("The Spirit of Liberty," p. 138)

    This is a useful caution, yet I think Fish is wrong to defend the "Ivory Tower" and disparage civic education and engagement in universities. I'd like to respond to four major points in his essay.

    1. Colleges should do just one job, the only one for which they are qualified: "performing academic work responsibly and at the highest level." They should have but one goal: "the search for truth."

    A college that pursued only knowledge and that exclusively hired people qualified for pure scholarship would look like the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton or All Soul's College, Oxford. It would resemble a university minus the professional schools and occupational training programs, the departments of performing and creative arts, the offices of cooperative extension and tech transfer, the chapels and chaplains, the student centers and dorms, the teaching hospitals and lab schools, the athletic teams and marching bands. Frankly, it wouldn't admit undergraduates, because education is not itself the "search for truth."

    Such an institution might be a nice place to work, but it's hard to see how it could be funded. Fish warns, "don't surrender your academic obligations to the agenda of any non-academic constituencyparents, legislators, trustees or donors." This sounds right until you realize that these "constituencies" pay our salaries, and they must believe that we are serving valuable purposes. At no time in our history have Americans been satisfied with knowledge as the main purpose of higher education. They've paid to train the clergy, to educate young people, to expand access to the middle class, and even to win bowl games, but not primarily to pursue the truth. Consequently, faculty and staff are not (and have never been) solely expert at scholarship and science. They have many other skills.

    2. There is a fundamental difference between scholarly argument and what we conventionally call "politics"; and the two should never mix. For example, "a dispute between scholars [about welfare reform] will not be political in the everyday sense of the word, because each side will represent different academic approaches, not different partisan agendas."

    This is a difficult issue, and I'm not satisfied with my own thinking. There is--and should be--an important difference between discussions of policies and issues in the academy, on the one hand, and in the political arena, on the other. But it's relatively hard to put your finger on the difference. It's certainly not true that academics take different sides on political issues because of their different academic approaches--as if all those who favored welfare reform were statistical modelers and those who opposed it were ethnographers. Ideology is a major (and appropriate) part of academic debate, as Fish well knows. Conversely, debates in legislatures, courts, and regulatory agencies are not devoid of controversy about research methods.

    So there must be a large gray area. Nevertheless, we want scholars to think somewhat differently from activists and politicians: to take a longer view, to be less influenced by immediate tactical concerns, to be less committed to parties, to be more openly engaged with their intellectual opponents, to offer more complex and nuanced views. These values are more attainable in academia than in politics, and we should protect them. Yet they are compatible with "civic engagement," done right.

    3. "Universities could engage in moral and civic education only by deciding in advance which of the competing views of morality and citizenship is the right one, and then devoting academic resources and energy to the task of realizing it. But that task would deform (by replacing) the true task of academic work: the search for truth and the dissemination of it through teaching."

    Here Fish ignores a form of civic education that's compatible with the classical liberal belief in personal freedom. He assumes that civic education means herding students along particular paths. It can be something quite different: expanding the breadth of their choices as adults by helping them to experience various forms of political and civic participation (along with various forms of artistic creativity, scholarly inquiry, appreciation of nature, and spirituality). Unless young people are explicitly taught about citizenship, they will not be free to choose to be active citizens, because they will know little except consumerism, entertainment, and careerism.

    4. There is a zero-sum relationship between scholarship and engagement. "Performing academic work responsibly and at the highest level is a job big enough for any scholar and for any institution. And, as I look around, it does not seem to me that we academics do that job so well that we can now take it upon ourselves to do everyone else's job too. We should look to the practices in our own shop, narrowly conceived, before we set out to alter the entire world. ..."

    Fish is right about certain research programs in certain disciplines. If you're a student of Milton, you might learn something relevant by participating in current debates about religion. But such participation is equally likely to distract you from your best sources of information, which are in the library. There is, however, such a thing as research that contributes important new methods and knowledge to its discipline as a result of close engagement with communities.

    For example, I doubt that Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues at the University of Indiana could have made crucial contributions to the theory of collective action if they had not worked closely with people who manage common-pool resources (forests, fisheries, irrigation systems, and grazing lands) on several continents. They have drawn advice and inspiration from these people even as they have provided technical assistance and derived generalizable lessons. Likewise, Jane Mansbridges discovery of regular norms in consensus-based democratic organizations arose from her close and collaborative work with such groups.

    These examples of engaged scholarship epitomize the "search for truth." They also provide a way to address a sense of alienation that professors often feel. Many of us enter the profession with idealistic motivations, but find that we only contribute incrementally to the knowledge of fellow specialists, with whom we interact sporadically at conferences or by email. Engaging with communities can be profoundly rejuvenating.

    As a Dean, Fish has clashed with "members of Congress, Illinois state representatives and senators, the governor of Illinois, the governor's budget director, and the governor-appointed Illinois Board of Higher Education." He says that he views all these people as "ignorant, misinformed, demagogic, dishonest, [and] slipshod." They simply refuse to leave scholars alone to pursue knowledge (at public expense.) This kind of relationship with the outside world must be downright exhausting for Fish. He might find that civic engagement is a relief.

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    May 11, 2004

    students and the First Amendment

    The First Amendment Schools program would probably surprise many people--especially reporters--who examined it closely. One of its major sponsors is the First Amendment Center, which exists to advocate civil liberties. Its very name implies a commitment to protect and enhance liberties of speech, press, assembly, religion, and petition. Therefore, one might expect that First Amendment Schools would protect civil liberties within their own walls: for instance, by allowing student newspapers to publish without prior review, or by tolerating offensive t-shirts. Participating schools might also promote respect for the First Amendment by teaching students to understand and value a free press, free exercise of religion, and so on.

    Indeed, many First Amendment Schools do these things. I don't think that a school with a very restrictive speech code could participate. However, participating schools do a lot more than grant rights to their own students. They also ask students to learn and practice virtues and obligations of citizenship, such as deliberation, tolerance, and concern for the common good.

    I think this is great, because I would like high school graduates to understand the obligations as well as the rights of the press. Journalists do not have to do anything to earn their freedom; they have inalienable rights that students should understand and value. Nevertheless, as consumers and citizens, we can expect reporters to do a great deal.

    I personally think that reporters, especially in the broadcast media, are doing a miserable job of supporting our democracy and civil society. We might, for example, expect that a multi-million-dollar industry devoted to collecting important public information might have focused on terrorism before 9-11. There were plenty of public reports that could have alerted them to the importance of this topic. However, as Nightline's producer, Tom Bettag, said recently:

    If there were warnings throughout government about al Qaeda, let the record show that on the three network evening news broadcasts that summer and Nightline, the name al Qaeda wasnt spokennot a single time. The record will show that on the week of August 20, three weeks before the attacks, the story most covered on the three network evening news broadcasts was Gary Condit. It got twice as much coverage as the next story (Quoted in PressThink).

    In this case, the complaint is a failure to grapple with substance. In other cases, the news media can be charged with ignoring legitimate points of view, with sensationalism, with exploitation, with bias, and with many other sins. I wouldn't want high school graduates necessarily to share my negative view of the press, but I would hope that they'd become critical readers and viewers. Most of all, I would hope that some of them would respond to the failures of the mainstream media by creating alternatives of their own. In the age of the blog, you don't need a printing press to become a news producer.

    The genius of the First Amendment Schools project is to put the First Amendment in an appropriate context, without compromising individual rights but without forgetting civic obligations.

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    May 6, 2004

    democracy and education

    I'm on my way this morning to the Wye River retreat center on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where the 1997 Arab-Israeli agreement was hammered out. I'll be attending a much lower-profile event: a retreat for the First Amendment Schools project. Schools may apply to join this project if they want to increase student participation in their own governance as a means of civic education. For example, they may develop a school constitution, protect free expression for students, and strengthen student government and student news media. There are grants and other forms of support available for participating schools.

    Some people take the line that education for democracy must itself be democratic. This is the theme, for example, of Carl Glickman's Holding Sacred Ground. John Dewey is the patron philosopher of this movement. Dewey and his followers hold that democracy is not just a system of government; it's a way of thinking about all aspects of life, from ethics to education to science and art.

    My own view is a little different. I think that "democracy" means rule by citizens; it means elections and freedom of speech. It's an open question whether the best way to educate people for democracy is to organize schools in democratic ways. It doesn't follow logically that education for democracy requires democratic methods, and the empirical basis for this claim is not very strong. Nevertheless, I admire the First Amendment Schools, because I believe that it's good for educational institutions to embrace comprehensive and inspirational guiding philosophies. If a school embraces democratic education voluntarily and thoughtfully, it should get good results. However, democratic education is not the only way to make good citizens. I can imagine that a school might be organized according to scientific values, for example, and produce excellent citizens as graduates. Science, like democracy, is compatible with public education; but science is not the same as democracy. Likewise, a school might embrace artistic creativity as its core value and get good civic results. (Although some art is democratic, democracy is not the essence of art.) Religious instruction can also produce good citizens, as Yates and Youniss showed in their evaluation of a Jesuit high school that is not internally democratic. In my own work with high school students, we try to embody democratic values, but I regard this as only one road to civic education.

    Meanwhile, the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools has officially announced its existence and has released applications for grants. State teams that want to improve civic education are encouraged to apply.

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    April 27, 2004

    the NAEP civics assessment

    [update: At its May 2005 meeting, the National Assessments Governing Board increased the frequency of the NAEP Civics Assessment to every four years, twice the prior frequency of every eight years. This was a good decision, especially compared to the possibility that the Civics Assessment would be canceled altogethe.]

    The 12th-grade NAEP Civics Assessment is threatened with termination. I know that this is not the #1 topic on the minds of millions of Americans, but it's an important and tricky issue. The federal officials responsible for NAEP are inviting comments right now (see below).

    First of all, some general background about the NAEP itself. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called the "Nation's Report Card," looks like a test to the kids who take it, but it's an assessment of our schools and school systems, not of individual students. There are no "stakes" for the kids: no consequences for doing well or poorly. Indeed, no score is computed for a given student. That is because the test instrument is very long, and each person is asked to complete a random part of it. Asking many questions is the best way to measure skills and knowledge, so it's useful to ask a whole population more questions than any child or adolescent could sit still for. The results are then combined to generate statistics for the population.

    Assessments are conducted in reading, mathematics, science, writing, U.S. history, civics, geography, and the arts. Traditionally, participation was voluntary; either a state, a school, or an individual child could decline to participate. This has changed somewhat with the passage of No Child Left Behind. Now all states are required to conduct the NAEP reading and mathematics assessments every two years at the 4th and 8th grade. They must conduct the NAEP in such a way as to generate statistically valid results for their whole student populations in those subjects. In principle, the NAEP is funded by the federal government and designed by the Educational Testing Service as a federal grantee. In practice, there are some costs for states and schools--in time if not in money.

    In addition to knowledge and skill questions, students are asked some survey questions about their backgrounds and experiences in school and outside. Teachers complete a separate questionnaire. Students' transcripts are collected and connected to their performance on the assessment. All this data-collection makes NAEP a superb source of information about what seems to work in education. To name one example, Richard Niemi and Jane Junn have shown, using NAEP data, that social studies courses increase students' knowledge and also seem to improve their civic attitudes.

    The National Assessment Government Board sets standards for Basic, Proficient, and Advanced in each NAEP. The Department of Education is thus able to say, for example, that 2 percent of students score at the Advanced level in civics at the 12th grade level. It is important to note that these cutoff points are subject to debate. They are set by panels of experts and citizens who have exercised their judgment to determine what should consitute Basic, Proficient, and Advanced mastery of a subject. A different group might reach a different conclusion.

    A NAEP civics or citizenship assessment has been conducted five times since 1969 (and only three times at the 12-grade level), although history, geography, and economics have also been assessed periodically. The results were representative of the nation's student population, but there was no effort to assess a statistically representative sample in each state--or even in some of the states. Organizing state samples is more expensive than measuring a national sample.

    Many experts consider the NAEP civics assessment to be a fine instrument for measuring skills and knowledge. Many would also like to measure civic attitudes and behaviors (tolerance, patriotism, concern for the common good, voting, volunteering, and many more). By law, NAEP scores only reflect students' knowledge and skills, although a few attitude measures were included in the survey portion of the 1998 civics NAEP.

    The next NAEP civics assessment is tentatively scheduled for 2006, after an eight-year gap. It will again be a national sample without separate state results. Given the long gap and the lack of state-level data, we can't observe trends in civics. Nor can we compare state standards and curricula to find out what works, nor can we measure progress either nationally or by state, nor can we hold policymakers accountable for civics. Some people also think that it is symbolically damaging to assess civics every eight years if we are going to test reading and mathematics every two years, because what we assess is what we seem to care about. For these reasons, the many and diverse signatories of the Civic Mission of Schools report called for civics assessments every three years, with representative samples in each and every state.

    This target appears to be receding. The National Commission on NAEP 12th Grade Assessment and Reporting issued a report on March 5, 2004 that calls for making reading and math NAEPs mandatory in all states. Twelfth-grade civics is to be an entirely optional assessment, conducted only at the national level and only if funding permits. Civics is explicitly placed in a third tier below reading and math (which are to be mandatory) and science and writing (which are treated as highly desirable). The report is a purely advisory document which the National Assessment Governing Board will review critically. NAGB is currently inviting public comments.

    There appear to be three reasons that the advisory commission recommended emphasizing reading and mathematics and making civics a low priority. First of all, reading and math are the priorities of the No Child Left Behind law, which mandates NAEPs in those fields at the 4th and 8th grade. NCLB is silent about the 12th grade NAEP, but this report is in the spirit of NCLB. As the Washington Post reported recently, schools are dropping other subjects in order to concentrate on the NCLB mandates. Education Secretary Rod Paige defends the emphasis in the law. "A child that can't read is not going to learn history or civics," he says. But the narrowing of the curriculum has attracted critics as diverse as the National Conference for the Social Studies; NAGB's Executive Director, Charles Smith; and the Fordham Foundation's Chester Finn, who wrote:

    the omission of social studies-and, more importantly, of history, geography, and civics-from NCLB is beginning to have deleterious effects. It's causing some states and schools to downplay these subjects in favor of those for which they'll be held publicly accountable and compared with each other. As the old educator truism puts it, what gets tested is what gets taught.

    Second, only 55% of high school seniors who are asked to take NAEP assessments are now complying. It is likely that those who decline to participate are not a random group but have particular characteristics: compared to other students, they may be busier, or enrolled in poorer or more focused schools, or less academic. Such a low participation rate makes the results virtually meaningless. The report suggests solving this problem by making state participation in reading and mathematics mandatory, and conducting the other assessments occasionally, with national samples, if resources allow.

    The third reason is an apparent assumption that schools do not have an essential civic mission. The report urges that NAEP "report on the readiness of 12th graders for college, training for employment, and entrance into the military." It passes over the readiness of 12th graders to be citizens, active in civil society, communities, and politics. This omission feeds fears in our community that testing is driving out civics.

    In principle, there are at least four policies that could be adopted:

    1. Separate federal legislation could mandate NAEP civics assessments in every state on a regular basis (e.g., once every three years), as a condition of federal funding.

    2. NAEP civics assessments could be offered every three years, and funding could be provided to encourage states to organize separate representative samples.

    3. The NAEP civics, history, geography, and economics assessments could be combined into a single "social studies" NAEP (with separate subscores for each subject); this NAEP could then be offered every three years in as many states as possible.

    4. A completely new--and much shorter--assessment of adolescents' civic knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors could be conducted as a random survey, with a big enough sample to generate state-level results in at least the large states.

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    April 21, 2004

    the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools

    A coalition has formed to advocate implementing the recommendations of the Civic Mission of Schools report across the United States. The coalition includes 42 individuals and groups, including such major stakeholders as both national teachers unions, the National Council for the Social Studies, the American Bar Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Education Commission of the States, the Center for Civic Education, and many more. The campaign has raised $2 million, most of which will be distributed to teams that will advocate civic education in their own states. The full plan calls for raising roughly another $1.6 million. The Campaign has not been formally launched with press releases and a website, but it is certainly no secret, having been announced at several large conferences. Last week was its second Steering Committee meeting, which I attended. (In fact, I'm the chair, although I don't take that title overly seriously). Conversation was focused, thoughtful, and civil all day.

    One of many issues that arose was how to make civic education seem more urgent to the many people who like the sound of it, but aren't moved to promote it. I don't know the answer, but I think that many people are deeply dissatisfied with the political culture (writ large). They don't like the conversation they see on political talk shows, the campaign ads, the leaders of either party, or even the heads of our major non-profits. Certainly, some of these dissatisfied people have unrealistic expectations or have jumped to overly hostile conclusions. But some very thoughtful citizens rightly dislike the general tenor of political debate and the quality of our leaders. To them, we need to say, "What kind of leaders can we expect in 10 or 40 years if we don't do a better job of civic education? Kids are being 'educated' by such spectacles as the White House press conference last week--and worse. If this is the only kind of education they get, then our public institutions and communities will face big trouble in the decades to come."

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    April 8, 2004

    Public Agenda's FirstChoice

    Public Agenda has done what I once hoped to do myself: they have created a website with detailed background information on important public issues and self-diagnostic exercises that can help you to decide what policies you prefer--understanding that all policies have costs and risks, as well as advantages. The site says:

    When politicians present their plans, they naturally play up the quick, easy, cheap part of their program and downplay the messy, expensive, risky parts. In reality, however, many problems don't get solved without facing harsh choices; the government can't avoid pleasing some people and offending others. First Choice 2004 is designed to help you make the most of your vote by having strong, informed opinions about what those choices might be.

    Public Agenda is a careful, skillful, and truly nonpartisan organization. They have certainly done a far better job with the site than I could have done. If there were any way to get lots of people to use resources like this, our democracy would work much better. The New York Times and MTV are described as "partners" for the site, and they may boost its usage. Nevertheless, I presume that it will appeal mostly to very motivated and serious people. If only it could be used in thousands of high school social studies courses ....

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    March 30, 2004

    character education

    One of the things I like best about my job is the opportunity to move almost daily from one professional context to another. Today, I attended a conference organized by the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools (OSDFS). This is a federal program, buried deep within the bureaucracy of the US Department of Education. It is also an educational program, so most of the people who attended today were teachers, principals, or district supervisors. Federal bureaucrats and educators are two groups with their own distinctive folkways and vocabularies.

    OSDFS has responsibility for "character education," which is a national movement. For me, it raises several questions:

  • To what extent is character education driven by the desire to prevent school shootings and other famous atrocities? I don't believe that any general policy can possibly reduce the chances of extremely aberrant behavior. After all, only about 0.0001% of American students slaughter their classmates. So there isn't anything in the general context of American schools that causes this behavior. If character education is expected to prevent extreme acts of violence, it will fail, or the whole problem will disappear--but either way the program will lose support.

  • Do we want kids to internalize norms (such as sexual abstinence, or non-violence, or being polite)? Or do we want them to think critically about ethics--weighing competing values, challenging assumptions, and reasoning with people who hold different moral beliefs? We may want to encourage both good behavior and critical thinking; but these are quite different objectives.

  • What kind of change (and how much change) can we expect from a $25 million federal program?
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    March 26, 2004

    a defense of civic education

    James Murphy, a Dartmouth political scientist, wrote an article that was very critical of k-12 civic education in last fall's Education Next. That journal then published a shortened version of my reply to Prof. Murphy in its winter issue. I don't blame the editors for abridging my letter, but I've copied the whole thing here, because it summarizes the empirical evidence in favor of civic ed. (Click "continue reading" for the full letter.)

    In Tug of War (Fall 2003), James B. Murphy argues that the attempt to inculcate civic values in our schools is at best ineffective and often undermines the intrinsic moral purpose of schooling.

    Murphys first argument relies on the empirical claim that civics classes are ineffective, because they do not foster desirable knowledge, attitudes, and conduct. He cites influential research by [Kent] Jennings and Kenneth Langton [which] found that the high-school civics curriculum had little effect on any aspect of civic values. Here Murphy is referring to a 1968 article that derived its conclusions from asking students just six miscellaneous factual questions. Nevertheless, he claims that these and other studies have created a lasting professional consensus that civics courses in particular appear to have little effect on civic knowledge and even less on civic values.

    Murphy concedes that this picture has been complicated by Richard Niemi and Jane Junns book Civic Education: What Makes Students Learn (1998). As Murphy summarizes their argument, Niemi and Junn found that, although the civics curriculum had much less effect on civic knowledge and values than did the home environment, civics courses did make some difference. However, as with earlier studies, Niemi and Junn found that civics courses had virtually no effect on attitudes.

    In fact, Niemi and Junn write that the evidence points strongly in the direction of course effects on students attitudes as well as knowledge. They analyzed the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) Civics Assessment, which asked only two questions about values or attitudes. Thus the authors recognize that they have little data on attitudes, but there is certainly no basis for skepticism about the effects of courses. On the contrary, courses seem to raise students scores on the only two attitudes that were measured: confidence in government and belief in the value of elections. The magnitude of the differences is substantial.

    Niemi and Junn further cite an extensive body of program evaluations, studies of instruction at all levels, and cross-sectional and longitudinal analysesall produced after Jennings and Langtons work of the late sixties, and all arguing that civics classes do help to make young people into knowledgeable, engaged, and/or concerned citizens.

    More recently, Judith Torney-Purtas analysis of the IEA Civics Assessment (given to 90,000 14-year-olds in 28 countries) found that civics instruction correlates with improved civics knowledge, skills, and attitudes, controlling for demographic factors. Likewise, according to The Civic and Political Health of the Nation: A Generational Portrait (a survey of Americans conducted in 2002), students who reported that their teachers led discussions of politics and government were more involved in their communities and more attentive to the news than other students, again controlling for other measured factors.

    In his discussion of knowledge and attitudes, Murphy omits another outcome: behavior. A large literature shows that knowledge is not only good in itself; it is also a necessary precondition of political engagement (voting and other forms of participation). Thus gains in civic knowledge probably lead to higher levels of civic involvement.

    All this evidence suggests that, on average, civics and government classes have positive effects. That is an important finding, since civics and social studies courses are being cut, especially at the early grades. One could add that typical civics classes are not as effective as they ought to be, since textbooks and teacher education are considered weak. Thus there is a potential for civic instruction to produce considerably better outcomes than we see today, without utopian change.

    Furthermore, Murphy limits his discussion to government and history classes or their close equivalents. There is considerable evidence that other forms of school-based civic education generate lasting changes in attitudes and values as well as knowledge and skills. These include moderated discussions of current events and issues; combinations of community service with academic work (service-learning); extracurricular activities (especially student government and school newspapers); appropriate student participation in school governance; and simulations of trials, elections, legislatures, and diplomatic relations.

    Earlier this year, many of the most distinguished empirical researchers from political science, psychology, and education considered evidence from program evaluations and massive datasets and concluded that formal instruction in US government, history, or democracy is an effective way to increase students skills and knowledge. This was one of the conclusions of the Civic Mission of Schools Report, written by more than 50 experts and issued jointly by Carnegie Corporation of New York and CIRCLE (the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement). James Murphy is entitled to dissent from this document, but he has no business claiming that the lasting consensus is on his side.

    The Civic Mission of Schools also casts doubt on Murphys second major argument against civic education. The proper goal of schools, he says, is to inculcate intellectual skills and virtues, such as perseverance, thoroughness, accuracy, intellectual honesty, intellectual courage, and intellectual impartiality. He claims that there is no consensus about the content or purposes of civic education; costly battles always break out when schools try to teach political knowledge, habits, and skills. Besides, Murphy argues, it is risky to teach history or government for the purpose of generating a particular kind of citizen. The academic pursuit of knowledge will be corrupted if truth-seeking is subordinated to some civic agenda.

    To be sure, there are important and principled disagreements about precisely what and how students should be taught history and government and what makes a good citizen. We should welcome such arguments as part of a discussion of our nations purposes and values. At the same time, there is an enormous amount of common ground, as evidenced by the detailed recommendations in the Civic Mission of Schools report. This report was written and endorsed by self-identified liberal and conservative scholars and representatives of such diverse groups as the Heritage Foundation, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Council for the Social Studies, the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the National Education Association.

    James Murphy advances an interesting position about the purposes of education and reminds us of the potential tension between teaching the truth and trying to make the right kinds of citizens. However, his reading of the empirical literature is inaccurate and incomplete, and he overlooks a broad consensus on goals. There is much more basis for optimism about civics than he admits.

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    March 22, 2004

    teenagers talk politics

    (Written in Syracuse, NY:) ABC News/Weekly Reader recently polled Americans between the ages of 12 and 17 about their political views. This is from the report:

    "First, [the poll] finds less political discussion than you might expect: Fewer than half of teens, 47 percent, say they've talked about politics and the 2004 election with their parents. Hardly more, 54 percent of teens, have covered it in class at school."

    (By the way, if 47 percent of high schoolers really discussed politics, that is a higher rate than has ever been found among incoming college freshmen, going back to 1967. However, I don't think that discussion is really more common this year than ever before; I just think this poll question generated a lot of affirmative answers.)

    The ABC report continues:

    Discussing politics "makes a big difference. Among kids who've discussed the election with their parents, more than three-quarters are interested in it, and even more nine in 10 plan on voting all or most of the time when they're old enough. Kids who haven't discussed the election with their parents are much less interested in it (46 percent) and less likely to plan to vote. Having class discussions about politics boosts interest and anticipated participation in elections as well but the effect is not quite as great as having discussed it at home."

    We wouldn't claim, on the basis of this poll, that discussion "boosts" interest. Perhaps those who are already interested in politics are the ones who end up in classes where elections are discussed. However, other studies have shown that discussion of politics does increase political interest; this poll lends that hypothesis some additional support.

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    March 15, 2004

    new article

    The winter issue of the National Civic Review contains an article by me on The Civic Mission of Schools. It's a short summary of the major arguments about civic education, meant for people who are into good government, community development, and civic renewal.

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    March 10, 2004

    social studies classes are highly traditional

    Social studies education is a battleground in the Culture Wars, with some critics charging that schools teach subversive and anti-American versions of history, while others accuse mainstream teachers of papering over injustice. Almost never is this debate anchored in any empirical evidence about what actually occurs in typical classrooms. Instead, critics site news stories about radical or reactionary teachers in particular schools, or they quote controversial education professors and assume that average teachers think the same way.

    Today, CIRCLE and the Council for Excellence in Government released some actual poll results. When 15-25-year-olds were asked to choose one or two themes that were emphasized the most in middle and high school classes, they answered as follows:

    45% -- The Constitution or the US system of government and how it works
    30% -- Great American heroes and the virtues of the American system of government
    25% -- Wars and military battles
    11% -- Problems facing the country today
    9% -- Racism and other forms of injustice in the American system
    5% -- Other, all of the above, or dont know

    I'm a fairly neutral party in this debate; besides, I don't think that empirical data can ever settle an argument about what themes should be emphasized in social studies. However, I challenge conservative critics to stop attacking schools for teaching a leftist version of history, because there's no evidence that this is happening. Leftist critics have more to complain about.

    There's a lot more information, including detailed statistical analysis, here.

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    February 6, 2004

    no federal concern for civics?

    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.

    Now we learn that the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) has commissioned a report on the 12th grade NAEP, which will be received and publicized on March 5. We are told that this report will call for the abolition of all 12th-grade NAEPs other than reading, math, and science. This decision would represent a giant step away from our goal, at least at the federal level. On the other hand, if we can organize to block the change, we may gain some momentum and visibility. I think this is a crucial test.

    It's also a reminder of our fundamental goal. NABG is not contemplating the end of the NAEP Civics Assessment because it is a flawed instrument. Rather, they simply do not believe in the importance of schools' civic mission. They are asking all fields other than reading, math, and science to justify themselves. They are putting us all in a position where we will have to compete for survival: civics against history; civics and history against the arts. We would not face this highly unpleasant situation if people believed that schools have a civic mission.

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    February 4, 2004

    teaching controversial issues

    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.

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    February 3, 2004

    at the Educational Testing Service

    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.

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    January 9, 2004

    rural schools and civics

    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 are rural.

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    December 10, 2003

    ideology and civics

    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.

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    November 14, 2003

    measuring civic engagement

    My organization, CIRCLE, promotes a set of 19 "core indicators of civic engagement" as a way of measuring the level of engagement of any youthful group or community, and also as a way of assessing the civic impact of a program, class, or project. These 19 indicators were chosen after an elaborate national research project managed by Scott Keeter, Cliff Zukin, Molly Andolina, and Krista Jenkins, who talked to practitioners and young people in focus groups and then conducted a national survey. Despite its empirical rigor, their list of indicators provokes an interesting and important controversy. I have heard the following views expressed:

      1. This is (roughly) the right list, because it emerged from a study of real young people and captures the forms of engagement that are reasonably common among youth today. Most of these behaviors are becoming less common over time, but that is a reality that we should face squarely and not sidestep.
      2. These indicators measure an average group of Americans, but they mask our great diversity. For example, on an Indian reservation, the important forms of engagement would include participation with the tribal council, which is not measured on the survey. For Native Americans and many other subcultures, the list of indicators is inappropriate.
      3. This is the right list for assessing the civic engagement of all Americans over time, but it's the wrong list to use in program evaluation, because it is unrealistic to expect a class or other project to change these variables.
      4. This is generally the wrong list, because it weighs old-fashioned forms of civic engagement (like wearing political buttons) too heavily, and omits the novel forms that young people are developing today: transnational protests, blogs and email lists, low-budget documentaries and public-service announcements, boycotts, poetry slams. The obvious response is that such forms of participation are not common enough to show up on surveys. But perhaps they are the most historically important developments of the present era, and they should be measured in program evaluations. Perhaps failing to measure them "sends a message" that what we want is a return to old-fashioned, adult-dominated politics.

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      November 7, 2003

      service-learning research

      Salt Lake City: I gave the keynote luncheon address today at the International Service-Learning Research Conference. I argued that we need research to test 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 beginning to organize itself, 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 be skeptical.

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      October 31, 2003

      organizing for civic ed

      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.

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      October 28, 2003

      justice-oriented citizens

      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.

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      October 20, 2003

      hard-headed research on service-learning

      I am going to give a plenary address to the annual Service-Learning Research Conference in a few weeks. ("Service-learning" means a combination of community service with academic work on the same topic: a common approach today.) I'm going to argue that research on service-learning needs to be much more tough-minded. Proponents need to show that average service-learning programs produce better outcomes over the long term than rival approaches, considering not only the benefits but also the costs (in time and money) and the risks. Such research requires random assignment of students to service-learning projects and to rival methods, and then long-term follow-up.

      Some people object that it is unfair to demand such scrutiny. Why should we have to prove the cost-effectiveness of an intervention that clearly benefits some kids (and helps them to participate politically)? We rarely hold other major policies to the same standard. For example, Congress is about to pass an energy bill, ostensibly to increase domestic supplies of energy, that will cost about $16 billion. The aid package for Iraq and Afghanistan is expected to cost $87 billion for this year alone; its purpose is to build stable and friendly countries. And Congress has already cut taxes by $1.3 trillion over the next ten years, claiming that this will stimulate the economy. None of these huge bills had to pass any kind of rigorous, independent research test before it was enacted. In contrast, the total budget for Learn & Serve America (federal support for service-learning) has never surpassed $43 million. That's about one four hundredth of the size of the energy bill, and one four millionth the size of the tax cut. So why the need for elaborate research on service-learning?

      The answer is that we live in a time when people are unwilling to part with money to help low-income kids, or kids of any background. I'm not just talking about Republicans; Democrats aren't much different. And I'm not just talking about politicians; a majority of American voters have the same attitude. Thus we face two alternatives: we can complain that our leaders won't take a chance on a promising approach, or we can figure out which approach will really make the most difference per dollar, and put all our energy into getting that approach implemented. Service-learning may fit the bill. It may benefit kids and also turn them into political actors, thereby changing the balance of power. Or it may not work; only rigorous research will tell.

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      October 2, 2003

      organizing for civics

      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 policy agenda.

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      September 29, 2003

      ideology and civic ed

      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 debate is not about whether particular facts are true; it's about 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, I suspect.

      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 completely 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.

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      September 23, 2003

      patriotism and civic

      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 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 fortunate they are compared to people who live in tyrannies or anarchy. 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.

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      September 22, 2003

      Congressional Conference on Civic Education

      I spoke today at the first annual Congressional Conference on Civic Education, which was attended by delegations from all fifty states, including state legislators, educators, and executive branch officials. I had served on the advisory committee for the conference, so I was glad to see it come to pass. It was also my third opportunity in 10 days to make a speech about the Civic Mission of Schools report. (The other two were the 50th anniversary of the National Conference on Citizenship and the Youth for Justice state directors' meeting.)

      At all three events, there was discussion of the importance and difficulty of teaching controversial issues in schools. Today, I mentioned Gun Owners of America's attack on the civic education bill as evidence that there are people who do not want such discussion in classrooms. After the session, a state legislator from the West approached me and said that I had been un-civil in treating the Gun Owners as "nuts"; I should have made sure I understood and conveyed their position fairly. He said that my incivility was an example of what is wrong with civic education.

      I was taken aback, since I feel that much of my work is aimed at promoting civil and respectful dialogue, and I strive to understand opponents' point of view. For example, I strongly disagree with the National Rifle Association's positions, yet I think its views are sincerely held, based on principles, sometimes unfairly caricatured, and conceivably correct. I suppose I would defend my criticism of the Gun Owners by noting that I didn't attribute a hidden agenda to them; I simply paraphrased their public statement, which is a pretty explicit attack on critical thinking in schools.

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      September 12, 2003

      gun owners against civic ed

      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 right.

      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.

      PS. The 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.)

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      September 11, 2003

      the Alexander civics bill

      Some time ago, the Senate passed The American History and Civics Education Act of 2003, which I've summarized earlier. 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).

      Many people in the civic education business believe that the bill would be better if amended. In particular, there is some concern that it will be funded at the expense of other history programs in the National Endowment for the Humanities. Thus it would be desirable to hold hearings and allow amendments in the House.

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      September 4, 2003

      civic ed does work

      James B. Murphy, a Dartmouth political scientist, has an article in Education Next in which he invokes very old research that found no benefits from civic education. He concedes that newer research shows that civic education enhances students' knowledge, but not (he claims) their civic attitudes.

      All the empirical experts in this field disagree. (Like me, Professor Murphy is a political theorist, not an empiricist.) The empirical folks claim that there were specific flaws in the 1960's research that reached skeptical conclusions about civics. They cite more recent evidence, including massive, test-like assessments and numerous program evaluations, that show that civic education programs do improve attitudes, knowledge, skills, and behaviors. Not only government classes, but also moderated discussions of controversial issues, extracurricular activities, and service-learning programs make a demonstrable difference. We summarized the leading evidence in the Civic Mission of Schools. I can imagine someone going over this newer material with a fine-toothed comb and detecting places where the case is not closed. For example, I don't think we can be sure that the knowledge gains that result from taking government classes persist into adulthood. But I cannot imagine citing Jennings and Langton (1968) as if that study remained relevant today.

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      August 29, 2003

      a conservative critique of civics

      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 and content.

      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 past.

      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.

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      August 28, 2003

      who are the anti-globalizers?

      (posted on Friday morning) I am curious about the "transnational activists": those young people who organize movements and stage protests about global issues. In particular, I wonder about their knowledge levels. In the 1999 IEA Civic Education Study, American 14-year-olds ranked dead last (out of 28 countries) in their knowledge of international issues and institutions. I presume that the transnational activists are more knowledgeable than their peers are, although that should be investigated. I wonder whether knowledge is a predictor of activism, and/or whether people gain knowledge through participation.

      It is possible that interest in transnational issues has risen because knowledge of local and national issues and institutions has fallen. A lot of young people are fairly perplexed about how and why they might participate in local or national issues. Before they can participate, they must form opinions about private actors (such as corporations) and also about elaborate sets of public institutions. For example, if they want to get involved in US environmental issues, they may find that they have to understand the role of the EPA and the courts, the differences between Democrats and Republicans, their own state's regulations, and many other matters that polls show they do not grasp. They also have to understand and consider a wide range of potential actions, such as voting for particular candidates, joining parties, and criticizing specific public officials. At the international level, however, the public institutions are very weak and can more easily be ignored. I realize that activists often choose to protest outside the existing international public institutions, such as the World Bank and the IMF. But my sense is that these bodies are viewed mainly as symbols of multinational capitalism. They don't exercise as much power as national governments do, and they give average people no opportunities for influence. Paradoxically, their weakness and undemocratic nature may make them easier to understand.

      permanent link | comments (0) | category: advocating civic education , revitalizing the left

      July 28, 2003

      liberalism and republicanism in the classroom

      I'm just back from Chestertown, MD (a really nice colonial town where George Washington slept a lot). I was there to teach some elementary-through-high-school teachers about classical liberalism versus civic republicanism. The teachers are folks who use the "We the People Program" produced by the Center for Civic Education; this is their state summer institute. They seemed to be pretty interested in the subject, although like all Americans they find it easier to grasp liberalism than civic republicanism. This is interesting (to them as well as me), since many of the motivations behind public education are civic republican rather than liberal. That is: a pure liberal may worry that making children into good citizens is "mind control" and represents illicit state support for a particular form of life, whereas a civic republican says that good government rests on active, engaged citizens—and civic engagement is inherently good. Social studies teachers are in the business of making good citizens, yet they are instinctively philosophical liberals. The tension or irony is not lost on them.

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      July 25, 2003

      save Americorps!

      Steve Culbertson of Youth Service America is circulating this message:

      If you can only make one call today, call the White House (202-456-1414) and inform them what the supplemental funding to avoid drastic cuts to AmeriCorps this year means to you, your program, and your community.

      The House and Senate have only until tomorrow (Friday) to compromise on the details of the supplemental legislation before the House leaves for its August recess.

      If the House and Senate conferees do not meet to iron out the details of the FY03 emergency supplemental (where the Senate included $100 million for AmeriCorps), before they leave for recess, hundreds of programs will be forced to close their doors.

      Agencies and nonprofits in every state will lose their ability to serve hundreds of thousands of individuals in communities across the country. Programs will lose their private sector support and community relationships that they have built over the past decade. Thousands of AmeriCorps recruits will turned away from serving their country.

      I attended a forum today on the same issue, in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. Many of the nation's leaders in service-learning attended. Some believe that the financial crisis of AmeriCorps has a silver lining: the service movement is organizing, recruiting allies (including friends among conservatives and business leaders), and learning that it has clout.

      Incidentally, I thought that Rep. Chris Shays (Republican of Connecticut) chose to make a fairly sharp and explicit attack on Rep. Dick Armey (R-TX), in defending AmeriCorps. (Armey, he said, "simply hasn't walked in someone else's moccasins.") He also argued for more diverse congressional districts, as a way to increase Republicans' sensitivity to minorities.

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      July 24, 2003

      civic engagement in "the projects"

      I was in New York City today, meeting with people who help young people play serious roles in HUD's HOPE VI program. This is the program that tears down very troubled federal housing projects—usually dense clusters of crime-ridden high-rises—and replaces them with more dispersed, small-scale, economically diverse housing. In quite a few HOPE VI sites across the country, young people from "the projects" are participating in planning, mapping assets, or starting "social entrepreneurship programs" such as micro-businesses and farmers markets. These are powerful stories and there's a lot of potential for more good work in HOPE VI sites.

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      July 21, 2003

      historians on the civic ed. bill

      This is from the National Coalition for History (NCH) Washington update:

      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.

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      July 15, 2003

      the young don't read newspapers

      According to CIRCLE's new fact sheet on media use, this is the trend in newspaper readership since 1972:

      We know that newspaper reading correlates with many forms of civic engagement, so this trend is worrisome. (It is also very bad news for the newspaper industry. Why don't they do something aggressive to reverse the decline, like giving millions of free newspapers to schools?) I think one piece of the problem is that young people don't learn how to read a newspaper. My own experience as a volunteer high school teacher has taught me that the "inverted pyramid" style of journalistic writing assumes a lot of background knowledge, and thus makes news stories baffling to inexperienced teenagers. They can learn to read newspapers, but they don't pick up this skill by osmosis.

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      July 8, 2003

      new research on civic ed

      I was in Boston today, for the International Society for Political Psychology's annual conference. I went to give a presentation on The Civic Mission of Schools. While there, I heard interesting papers on civic education and on the effects of public deliberation. I've summarized the latter papers on the DD-Net blog. Regarding civic education:

      • Jon Miller of Northwestern University Medical School presented a very important study that has followed 3,000 young Americans from 1987 to the present. Based on the data that his group has collected, they are able to show what factors predict political engagement in early adulthood. The courses taken in high school and students' performance in these courses do not seem to matter at all. This finding is somewhat at odds with the Civic Mission of Schools, which claims that school-based civic education works, at least when done well.

        There's a lot more to be said on this topic. For example, Miller's work doesn't distinguish between the kind of civic education that we would recommend and ordinary civic education. Furthermore, ordinary civic education does seem to increase students' knowledge, which can itself be considered a good. Still, it should give us pause to note that there was no observed connection between taking a government/civics class in high school and voting later on.

      • Arthur "Skip" Lupia of Michigan is writing a very interesting book that applies insights from cognitive science to the question of civic education. There are obstacles to learning about civics that are hard-wired, he believes; and good teaching must address these obstacles. For example, when two equally respectable people say opposite things—which often happens in politics—we tend not to put either view into our long-term memories. I think it is undeniable that biological constraints are relevant. But I would have to be persuaded that the findings of cognitive science were very solid before I would want them to influence policy.

      permanent link | comments (0) | category: advocating civic education

      July 2, 2003

      strategy issues for civic ed

      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 potatoes.
      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.

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      June 26, 2003

      CEOs for Americorps

      I'm one of about 200 people—mostly corporate executives—who 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.)

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      June 23, 2003

      the Alexander bill

      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 left out.

      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 teachers—a 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.

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      May 30, 2003

      at the ECS

      p>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.)

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      May 29, 2003

      the risks of controversy in schools

      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 risks—both moral and political—of 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.

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      May 1, 2003

      at the White House

      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 medals—quite 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 quotes—to 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 itself—with 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.

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      April 29, 2003

      Cesar Chavez school

      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 present—one 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 leadership.

      Today, I was sent this article on the Internet commons by its author, a former president of the American Library Association. It seems to be an important contribution.

      permanent link | comments (0) | category: advocating civic education

      April 28, 2003

      the point of civics

      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. I said:

      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.

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      February 13, 2003

      the release of Civic Mission of Schools

      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 well—at any rate, I'm relieved that it's done.

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      February 6, 2003

      Cesar Chavez school

      My day began with a nice breakfast at a fancy downtown hotel, talking to a foundation program officer about a project that he is planning. I camped out in the lobby to do some work, and then Metro'd to the Cesar Chavez Charter High School for Public Policy. It seems like fun to go there. Two hundred kids are tightly packed into improvised classrooms in a former office building. There's a sense that they are helping to create something idiosyncratic and important. Students participate heavily in planning the service projects that are central to the curriculum, so their voice matters. At the same time, discipline is strict: if you arrive one second late, you go straight to detention. As we walked through the halls, the principal had something specific to say to practically every kid she met: "We set up SAT classes for you. Oh, you can't do them because you're in the Corcoran art program. OK, we'll figure out an alternative."

      The neighborhood, near U Street, is full of charter schools—I suspect because the rent is fairly low and Metro connections are good. It's a transitional neighborhood, traditionally African American and working class, but now with quite a few White yuppies. I was thinking about the problems and advantages of gentrification when I passed workers restoring a beautiful row house. Outside the next-door house, an African American woman stood and shouted at them: "White man already has everything!" As an illustration, it was too perfect.

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      January 31, 2003

      a textbook idea

      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 economics—terms 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 problems—or that the burdens of regulation are worse—then 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.

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      January 27, 2003

      we need new civics texts

      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.

      permanent link | comments (0) | category: advocating civic education

      January 13, 2003


      A long day that ended at 3:00 am when I finally submitted The Civic Mission of Schools to the designers—10 hours late. I spent most of the middle of the day participating in spirited email discussions about specific points in the 40-page document that raised problems for some of our endorsers. I think we have everyone on board.

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      January 9, 2003

      the Civic Mission of Schools

      This was a fairly short work day, because I was helping at home in the morning and then took a 2-hour lunch to discuss with colleagues the final grades for last semester's graduate course. (Three of us taught something called "The Proseminar in Politics, Philosophy, and Public Policy," a graduate-level introduction to the basic tools you need to analyze fundamental social and moral questions.)

      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 launch, etc.)

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