educating good citizens
interviews with //
John B. King Jr. &
What are the promises made by K-12 education to our American society?
It’s an interesting question because so much of our time and attention is generally devoted to understanding the impact of public education on individual students. In this essay pairing, however, two authors argue that an indispensable purpose of education in the United States should be to train young people to be civic-minded participants in the quest to safeguard and protect our democratic ideals.
Former Secretary of Education John B. King Jr., who is now the president and CEO of The Education Trust, says, “A healthy democratic society needs strong defenders — people who not only understand how our systems function but who can navigate those systems and disrupt them when necessary so that they truly promote America’s ideals of equity and opportunity.”
Louise Dubé, executive director of iCivics, agrees. “Only once we intentionally and actively teach those concepts (equality and pluralism) and form habits of practice for democracy can we be sure that our unique American experiment will survive and thrive,” she says.
King and Dubé point to citizenship training as being among our founders’ earliest goals of the education system, and they believe proficiency in civics — among students and adults alike — is greatly lacking at a time when democracy is being challenged abroad, and political polarization is pervasive at home. How has this happened?
King, a former civics teacher, suggests, in part, that teachers are feeling more pressure to devote instructional time to reading and math. Dubé is blunter, pointing to “a half-century long education reform effort during which the goal of schools was narrowed to career and college readiness, and the time and resources devoted to goals other than basic literacy were cut.” King says, “it’s a mistake to crowd out subjects like social studies, the arts and sciences.” Dubé says civics has been “sidelined” by a “reductionist and transactional” school system.
To the extent that reading and social studies compete for the same limited time and space, it presents a great conundrum: If a student never becomes a reader, how may she be expected to become a civic leader or, at minimum, a participant in America’s democracy? Can an illiterate student be expected to become a regular consumer of the news, discern fact from fiction, formulate well-researched opinions on a host of issues, participate in basic civic activities and engage in activism to advance her beliefs?
Just as it is a reality that only one in four high school students are proficient in civics and only four in 10 adults can pass a citizenship test, it’s a concerning reality that 32 million adults in America are unable to read, according to the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy. We are not meeting the promise of basic literacy to every child. And literacy just might be a prerequisite to — or at least a facilitator of — civic-mindedness.
In the essays that follow, King and Dubé advance various ideas for improving civics education in America and attest to the importance of literacy as well. Meeting these goals simultaneously might be one of the most important education conversations of our time.
|Civil Discourse Prompts|
|What is the goal of civics education?
How might civics education be woven into core curriculum?
Should schools mandate civics instruction?
|Louise Dubé||Executive Director|
Louise Dubé joined iCivics as executive director in July 2014. She discovered the power of education in the early 1990s as a co-founder of CASES, a New York alternative-to-incarceration program for youthful offenders. Most recently, Louise was the managing director of digital learning at WGBH. Previously, she served as president of Pangea Tools, vice president of marketing at Time To Know, president of Soliloquy Learning and vice president and general manager at Scientific Learning.
Most Americans have little idea why our public school system was set up in the first place — to create a universal network, free to all citizens, through which they could acquire the knowledge they need to participate in elections, sit on juries and attend public meetings.
Or as Horace Mann famously put it in his essay “The Education of Free Men,” “That minimum of this education can never be less than such as is sufficient to qualify each citizen for the civil and social duties he will be called to discharge.”
Yet, now, we sit at the end of a cycle of a half-century-long education reform effort during which the goal of schools was narrowed to career and college readiness, and the time and resources devoted to goals other than basic literacy were cut. As a result, other disciplines such as civic education have been sidelined.
How this happened is understandable, and many would agree that the goals are laudable. Who would argue that basic literacy is not important? Still, the question must be asked, have we missed the forest for the trees?
During the turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s, as the civil rights movement raged and the Vietnam War divided the country, the fundamental relationship between Americans and their government frayed. As it did, teaching about government became less desirable because our government became less desired.
Over the past few decades, schools shifted focus away from social studies and civics in particular, fueled by large federal and philanthropic investments in STEM and English language arts (ELA). Intentionally, we sought to “fix” basic literacy, and our school system evolved in what could qualify as reductionist and transactional — consumed with test scores and assessments in STEM and ELA. As a result, investment and innovation in subjects such as civics all but ceased. At this point, teachers say they devote less than 7 percent of their time to teaching social studies.
“Right now, we are failing students when it comes to teaching about our American democratic republic.”
This moment in our country’s history has made that narrowing focus particularly troubling. Today, democracy is being challenged globally. Authoritarian regimes are on the rise, and belief in democracy is dropping. We struggle with extreme political polarization and growing inequality.
A return to an education system with the civic mission that Horace Mann envisioned could help.
The basic values upon which our country was founded — equality and pluralism — require habits of mind that ensure respect within diversity. The institutions that guarantee equality under the law, in elections and in civic life more broadly, must uphold those values. Yet without training, the next generations may not see how this can happen. Only once we intentionally and actively teach those concepts, and form habits of practice for democracy, can we be sure that our unique American experiment will survive and thrive.
Fixing this country’s very real and serious problems will take a multitude of different American voices that will have to collaborate to evolve our institutions, and it is up to schools to prepare young people with the tools to do so.
Right now, we are failing students when it comes to teaching about our American democratic republic. The scores from the last National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reflect this plainly enough. Only 23 percent of high school seniors graded “proficient” in civics on the 2014 “Nation’s Report Card.”
The generations that need to become problem solvers are not equipped to do so.
This in no way means that we should stray from our mission to ensure basic literacy and a solid STEM foundation. Yet a path correction is needed to ensure that the important skills we teach in ELA class or in STEM are used to foster equality and pluralism and that students graduate ready to foster a civic life that is healthy and that addresses the range of serious issues our society is experiencing. Civic education can support the goals of more productive and prepared workers for the 21st century. Civic education will produce strong team members who ensure that all views and experiences will be heard and who solve problems understanding the complexity of our pluralistic system.
An effective civic education doesn’t just teach about institutions. It teaches students how to understand the world around them, how to read and digest the news and how to develop informed opinions and back them up with facts. It teaches them how to express their views on issues and gives them a voice. And it teaches them that education is not just to prepare for exams but to make change in the real world.
This is incredibly important at a time when some 25 percent of young people believe that democracy is a bad system of government.
If we are to achieve our democratic ideals, we must achieve greater representation from those who are currently underrepresented at the polls and in our democracy. Right now, fewer than 10 percent of students who qualify for the free lunch program and whose parents did not attend college scored proficient on the NAEP civics exam. In 2016, young adults who had attended college were 20 percent more likely to vote than those who did not. In a system devoted to equality, we must educate for democracy.
As the next generation sets about working on the issues that face them, they will benefit greatly from developing the knowledge, skills and dispositions we all need to get along, to hear each other and to safeguard the institutions that protect both our lives and our economy. That is what civic education can do for our students.
|John B. King Jr.||President and CEO|
|The Education Trust|
John B. King Jr. is the president and CEO of The Education Trust, a national nonprofit organization that seeks to identify and close educational opportunity and achievement gaps. King served as secretary of education in the Obama administration. Prior to that role, King was deputy secretary. He joined the department following his post as New York state education commissioner. King began his career as a high school social studies teacher and middle school principal.
0ne of the greatest values of American public education is to prepare students to be knowledgeable and engaged citizens who can strengthen our democracy and protect it for tomorrow. This idea isn’t radical. Even in our nation’s earliest days, the founders understood that a primary function of public schools should be to teach young people about their role as citizens.
A healthy democratic society needs strong defenders — people who not only understand how our systems function but who can navigate those systems and disrupt them when necessary so that they truly promote America’s ideals of equity and opportunity. This notion is particularly salient now in this challenging time for our democracy when we observe dysfunction in our institutions, continually hear divisive political rhetoric and see growing segregation and inequality in many communities.
That’s why educators should see it as a vital part of work in schools to prepare students to be activists for a fairer and more just society.
“That’s why educators should see it as a vital part of work in schools to prepare students to be activists for a fairer and more just society.”
John B. King Jr.
In observing the one-year anniversary of the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, we can see young people who are powerful examples of student activism.
Some may say that not a lot has changed in America since February 14, 2018, but I disagree. The Parkland students helped alter the nation’s social consciousness on critical issues including voting and gun control.
The national voter participation rate for young people in the 2018 midterm elections was the highest in the last quarter century. And last year, states — including 14 with Republican governors — passed 50 pieces of legislation restricting access to guns. Just this February, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the “Red Flag Bill” with the mother of a student who died in the Parkland tragedy by his side. The law makes New York the first state to allow educators to seek court orders that remove guns from people who may be a threat to themselves or others.
In addition to these promising signs of progress, the Parkland students rightly modeled inclusive activism by incorporating in their movement young people of color in communities such as Baltimore and Chicago who are deeply affected by gun violence and who have fought for change in their communities, often without a national spotlight on their actions and their voices.
As I and others have noted, the Parkland students were prepared to be leaders in a social movement because of their learning at Stoneman Douglas, which included quality civic education.
But, as education leaders, if we’re honest with ourselves, we know the troubling reality is that we, as a nation, are not consistently preparing students for engaged citizenship, let alone activism.
Far too many students never learn how political parties function, how to register to vote or how the U.S. Constitution embodies the values and principles of American democracy. In 2014, less than a quarter of U.S. eighth graders were proficient or advanced in civics. Only eight states require students to take a yearlong civics or government class to graduate. And a new national survey of adults reveals that just four in 10 Americans can pass the U.S. citizenship test.
Students themselves are telling us this is unacceptable.
In Rhode Island, young people have brought a lawsuit against the state asking the federal court to affirm that they have a right to a public education that prepares them to engage fully in American civic life.
Collectively, we must do much more in our public K-12 schools — and in partnership with schools — to ensure that young people gain civic knowledge and skills and are prepared to be activists for causes that can make their communities stronger.
I believe there are three things that are among the most critical for us to consider in this work.
First, we must provide robust and equitable access to quality civic education in school to every student, everywhere in the country.
I’ve seen firsthand the power of civic learning. As a teacher, I taught ninth-grade civics. My students read our nation’s founding documents, traveled to city hall and met with state legislators to share their ideas about solving community challenges. As a middle school principal, I sought to carry this focus on civic learning across the curriculum and into the school’s culture. I would like to believe these learning experiences played at least a small part in inspiring one of my former students — now State Representative Chynah Tyler — to run for office in Massachusetts. Seeing her desk on the State House floor — in a building constructed more than 200 years ago when it was unthinkable for many that an African American woman could occupy that space — was an experience I will never forget.
In many areas of the country, a lack of civic learning can start in elementary school. Some educators have felt pressure to devote extra time to reading and math, for example, which has meant dwindling attention to other subjects, including social studies. A recent survey of K-3 teachers showed just 16 minutes of classroom time per day was spent on social studies in these grades.
But evidence points to the importance of background knowledge gleaned in the study of a rich variety of subjects to children’s development of vocabulary and foundational reading skills. As a result, we know it’s a mistake to crowd out subjects like social studies, the arts and sciences.
I’m encouraged by recent efforts to expand access to civic education, including a bipartisan bill just introduced in Vermont to require the study of civics for a high school diploma. But students should have the chance to acquire civic knowledge and engage in civic inquiry and debate in every subject.
Students in computer science classes, for example, can discuss the ethical considerations of artificial intelligence. And students in English language arts classes can learn how to research and write their remarks to testify at a city council hearing.
We also can do more to embed service learning in students’ experience of school. But service must go beyond one-off trips to the local soup kitchen. Instead, students should have opportunities to use their classroom learning to identify the structural obstacles and injustices that their communities face and to develop solutions. I’ve often said some form of national service should be required for all young people in America.
Second, through partnerships with schools, nonprofits, civic and civil rights groups, local governments and other organizations, we should enable students to develop an inclination toward informed activism.
I’ve long been inspired by the Freedom Schools via the Children’s Defense Fund, which offer summer enrichment programs to K-12 students from high-needs communities. College students and recent graduates serve as counselors in the program and receive training grounded in the history of the Civil Rights movement and nonviolent direct action. For many of these young people, this experience provides a lifetime orientation toward activism.
When students are supported to do democracy, the results are powerful. In New Jersey, students in an Advanced Placement government and politics class who were learning about the “civil rights movement” and unsolved deaths at the time were inspired to draft a bill requiring that all such cold-case files should be released to the public. The bill was signed earlier this year; and some historians believe it might be the first time that a high school class wrote a bill that ultimately was made into federal law.
Finally, educating students for engaged citizenship and activism requires exposure to diversity. That means we must recruit, hire and retain educators of color and work toward greater integration in schools.
America is becoming more diverse, yet only 18 percent of teachers in public schools are teachers of color. In many communities, schools are more segregated today than they were decades ago. These are huge problems.
In diverse classrooms, students are exposed to various cultures and perspectives. They work with peers who have different experiences of the world. They can see people of color in positions of leadership and as role models. And they have opportunities to confront biases — all of which will help them to more effectively engage in our democracy.
I would argue that students who are taught by diverse educators and who learn with diverse classmates are better equipped to improve their communities and to protect their rights and the rights of others, including and especially those who are most vulnerable.
In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that progress never “rolls in on wheels of inevitability” — and that progress takes work. To ensure that our young people are prepared to do that work for the benefit of themselves, their communities and our country, we must provide them with an education that enables them not only to achieve their individual dreams but that also empowers them to strive together to achieve a greater good.