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Peter Levine: Why we need civic education [with podcast]

Posted by Feb 15th, 2011.

Listen to a podcast of the talk and Q&A:
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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:

  1. Kids today don’t know anything about government and civics!
  2. Kids today don’t vote!
  3. 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:

  1. True, students don’t know all that much about politics and government. In 2006, just 27% performed at the proficient level in 12th grade. [] 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Popularity: 100% [?]

9 Responses to “Peter Levine: Why we need civic education [with podcast]”

  1. Jill Conrad says:

    Right on, Peter! I couldn’t agree more! All students need opportunities to not only learn the facts and figures of civics and government, but to engage authentically in solving the public challenges of our/their times, serving communities, and the valuable lessons of civil discourse.

  2. Appreciate the article very much, and as a leader in an organization that is focused on collaboration, discourse, alignment, and perspective, I can fully advocate for the Colorado regional office of Facing History and Ourselves as we consider them bold partners in our efforts when civic education is requested of us in the delivery of a program. (Yet I would always challenge the notion of tolerance as a value.) Fran Sterling is amazing! I would also include her predecessor at FH&O Bill Fulton and Civic Canopy,, and the Center for Education in Law and Democracy team is up to some amazing work,, Liberty Day, a group focused on the constitution, (We have put hundreds of these into the hands of teens from other countries sparking projects from Kenya to Hungary.), is attempting to expand their role, Even programs like PeaceJam and Youth Voyce, though not a focus, have an impact on “civic engagement” as does Environmental Learning for Kids. Open Media Foundation, a channel by the people for the people, has a program regarding our state capital and that could be incorporated into classes.

    All of these organizations, and I can imagine many more, are valuable assets to our schools here in Colorado.

    Check us out at and view the results we produce, (primarily with young people from abroad), regarding Civic Education.

  3. Liz Henry says:

    Thank you, Peter, for including Earth Force in your post on the importance of civic education. We firmly believe that meaningful youth engagement in schools and communities is transformational, both for the young people themselves and for the larger educational community. Our work in Denver and across the country focuses on how to bridge community-based organizations, school districts, government offices, and businesses with the young people taking civic action so that their meaningful engagement goes beyond the walls of the classroom. Thanks again for including us in such great company!

    Michael, you expanded the list beautifully, too!

  4. [...] to the podcast, or read Alan Gottlieb’s podcast summary and comments on the Education News Colorado [...]

  5. Regan Ross says:

    Thanks for the super interview and summary. To help get this message out, we broadcast and linked back to your site on our website. Thanks again, and keep up the super work and research.

    Regan Ross – The Civic Mirror

  6. Jeffrey Miller says:

    While there are many excellent lessons to be found in this post, one that I find quite fascinating and worthy of further exploration has to do with the flatness of the NAEP civics scores. Flat. Since the 70s. However, a previous post on this blog (3/3/10) pointed out the flatness hides some modest gains if one disaggregates the data into racial subgroup scores. All subject areas show a similar tendency with minor blips.

    I doubt many people are actually very pleased in any case with the overall trends. One might expect that over 40 years of reform in any human endeavor would bring about greater gains. Other fields of human enterprise have done quite nicely with huge gains in digital computation, robots in space, medical diagnostics, genetic engineering…

    But woe is education. It seems to wallow in the same shallow gene pool of progress inhabited by economists. Perhaps there is something unique to education not shared by NASA rocket scientists or genetic therapists. Unions? Poor quality workers? What? My money is on the notion that human social enterprises are quite complex and when ideology and political considerations vie for influence with empirical research, science doesn’t stand much of a chance. I also feel that unless children who grow into adults really see the tangible results of education like they see the rewards of scamming others to make the big payday or the bennies of fame however large the odds against them, Americans will not put forth the effort to be smarter. It simply will not happen no matter how we rearrange the deck chairs on the USS Edutanic.

    We live in educational stasis because our society does not really value and celebrate being smart, wise, or clever unless it makes money, broadcasts fame, or bestows power. We have never really defined what we want from education and until we do, the dollar will be the default setting on why we exist.

    • Lisa Elliott says:

      My god, Jeffrey–didn’t education play ANY role in “the hugh gains in digital computation, robots in space, medical diagnostics, genetic engineering….”
      I totally agree with your last paragraph!

      • Jeffrey Miller says:

        Sure education played a huge role. And that’s why my stance on this blog is often to wonder if there really is a crisis in education or has it just been trumped up by the need for votes by politicians and a media which gets viewers by highlighting despair and conflict.

  7. Discovering Justice is always ecstatic to read and hear of more research and support for the teaching of Social Studies and its lasting effects on active citizenship. Discovering Justice, a nonprofit organization working in the realm of civic education in the greater Boston area, has several programs that promote youth civic engagement. Peter mentions the need for people to “participate in meetings and work on public problems.” He recognizes that for this to happen, there needs to be a youth-focused movement in civic education. We couldn’t agree more! Our programs concentrate on elementary and middle school-aged students. We believe that civic education needs to start during the formative elementary years. We aim to give students the appropriate skills for problem solving in a public forum through an introduction to the justice system and analysis of landmark court cases.

    Our unique relationship with the state and federal judiciary enables us to offer an array of programs including: Field trips to the Moakley U.S. Courthouse tailored to middle school students (Discovering the Bill of Rights); field trips to the Moakley U.S. Courthouse and to the John Adams Courthouse tailored to elementary school students (Children Discovering Justice); teacher training workshops; an in-school eighth-grade curriculum; a ten week after school program directed by attorneys and culminating in a mock trial in front of a real judge and jury (Mock Trial); an eight week after school program focusing on an appellate case culminating in a presentation of arguments before a real judge in a courtroom (Stand Up for Your Rights); and finally, we offer courthouse tours.

    All of our programs are based on the idea that students should be given all the information necessary to become thoughtful, caring, critical, and respectful individuals exemplifying good citizenship. Research shows that by age 14, students in democratic countries are already part of the country’s political culture [1]. Thus, our authentic process of absorbing contextual details, inhabiting the role of an advocate for one’s client, critically analyzing the given data, and individually coming to a conclusion fosters lifelong skills for problem solving at an appropriately young age.

    Check out our civically-minded programs aimed at empowering students and teachers at

    [1] Developing Citizenship Competencies from Kindergarten Through Grade Twelve, Education Commission of the States/National Center for Learning and Citizenship, 2004.

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