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The following article was written by Peter Levine. Levine heads the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. He was the inaugural speaker for the “What Matters and What Counts in Education” speaker series.
When outsiders turn their attentions to civic education in K-12 schools, very frequently they make the following claims:
- Kids today don’t know anything about government and civics!
- Kids today don’t vote!
- Schools today don’t teach civics the way they used to when I was a kid. What happened to civics classes?
The implication, of course, is that we need to require and perhaps test civic knowledge.
These are myths:
- True, students don’t know all that much about politics and government. In 2006, just 27% performed at the proficient level in 12th grade. [http://nationsreportcard.gov/civics_2006/] But “proficient” is a pretty tough standard, not like a C but more like an A-. NAEP civics scores are not down—they have been completely flat since the 1970s. Compared to 14-year-olds in other countries, ours perform pretty well.
- The kids did vote in 2008. Youth turnout was then down in 2010. So the trend is mixed, but there is no evidence of systematic decline compared to the 80s and 90s. Volunteering, meanwhile, has reached record levels.
- Schools do teach civics. All 50 states have civics standards. Most require courses. Some have high-stakes exams. The amount of time devoted to social studies has remained pretty constant in grades K-8. In high school, the number of credits earned in social studies is substantially up. The mix of courses has changed, however, with “civics” and problem-oriented or discussion-oriented classes less common than in 1950, but political science, econ, and sociology more common.
Do we have a problem at all? Yes, indeed, because:
- Other educative institutions have lost the capacity or will to recruit young citizens into public life: newspapers, unions, membership organizations have all shrunk. America has never overcome any major challenge without unleashing the skills, energies, and passions of millions of our citizens. Collaboration is the genius of American democracy. But collaboration and problem-solving are in decline. People are substantially less likely to work on community projects or to attend meetings than they were a generation ago. This decline most seriously affects working-class and poor people and the communities in which they live. People without college experience have virtually disappeared from civil society. But we need all our people to participate in meetings and work on public problems. If we want this to happen, 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.
- Although our civic education and civic outcomes are OK on average and not in decline, we permit vast gaps in civic opportunities and civic engagement. Within a school of mixed demographics, the most advantaged kids usually dominate the opportunities for civic learning such as the school newspaper and social studies electives. When we compare schools that are demographically different, the ones with the most affluent families provide many more such opportunities. Universal public schooling was established to create universal civic engagement, but it actually exacerbates inequality.
- Missed opportunities: Civic education can be a pathway to better outcomes for kids, a path we lose if we fail to provide the least advantaged with high-quality civics. For instance, students who perform required service in courses are much more likely to graduate even when we adjust for demographics. In one randomized experiment, teenage girls who performed service and discussed issues were half as likely to become pregnant as the control group. Reading civic material seems to boost literacy.
- What happens in the best civic education is a precious activity that is missing elsewhere in our society. We have sorted ourselves into ideologically homogeneous communities and conversations in which we don’t have to engaged with people who disagree.
Bill Bishop argues in The Big Sort that Americans now live in counties—and other fixed geographical jurisdictions—that are far more politically homogeneous than they were in previous generations, because we “vote with our feet.” But good social studies classes are places where teachers bring out diverse perspective and moderate the discussions so that people learn from one another. Facing History and Ourselves is a model program in this respect and a rigorous national study finds that participating students gain tolerance for diverse views, understanding of history, and the capacity to make a difference.
For the most part, our political and media leaders offer uncivil shouting matches, but good social studies classes are places where civility is taught and required.
For the most part, citizens’ talking about public issues is separated from any action, because we have constructed public institutions that fail to engage ordinary people in important work. But excellent civic education encourages young people to discuss and study issues, and then take constructive action. Facing History demonstrably increases their interest in action. A Colorado-based national program, Earth Force, does an excellent job in linking talk to action.
For the most part, 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.
Civic education, at its best, is 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.
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