(Chicago) These are my remarks for tonight’s Illinois Civic Mission Coalition “Annual Convening.”
When Americans turn their attention 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!?
A couple of additional assumptions are buried under those claims. Civics is seen as the name of a course in high school, rather than a broader set of opportunities. And success in that course is defined as knowing some information (the kind that we test) and acting in particular ways, above all, by voting
I see the political value of this argument—it is easy for people to grasp, it fits into their preconceived ideas that civics is in decline, and it grabs attention. When the United States Department of Education released the 2011 National Assessment in Education Progress (NAEP) Civics results, the New York Times story was entitled “Failing Grades on Civics Exam Called a ‘Crisis.’” The story began, “Fewer than half of American eighth graders knew the purpose of the Bill of Rights.”
Maybe getting that story was a win for the civics field.
But I want to complicate matters a bit. All the claims I started with are at least a bit inaccurate and misleading—just as factual matters. From a strategic point of view, they are problematic, too. Since they present the wrong diagnosis, they naturally lead to the wrong cure. Adults are liable to say: Let’s require a year of civics in high school and test kids on the US Constitution! But that is not a good reform plan, as I’ll explain.
Isn’t it true that kids today don’t know anything about government and civics?
Well, just 24% of seniors performed at the proficient level on the NAEP in 2010. It sounds like an objective scientific fact that students don’t know enough civics. But you should realize that the test was designed to yield a proficiency score right around that level. I served on the 2010 and 2013 design committees, and we carefully screened and selected questions so that the test would have a certain difficulty level that would make it comparable to past tests, all of which have generated very similar scores, going back to 1972. If most students could answer a question correctly, it was dropped unless it helped fill the quota of easy items.
There is certainly no crisis of falling scores if scores have been flat, and indeed, they rose just a bit in 2010 compared to 2006—with the gains limited to 4th grade only.
So the question is: what should kids know, and do they know it? This is not a scientific question—you have to look at their performance on specific items and ask if they’re doing well enough. The fact is, they do well on some items. How often do you see in the news that 69% of high school seniors know the main ruling in Marbury v Madison? They were asked this question in the spring of their senior year, when senioritis is acute, and most were not then taking civics or government and they had no incentive to study or prepare for the NAEP. In my subjective opinion, the test is quite difficult, and some of the scores on particular items are surprisingly high.
Here’s another illustration that the NAEP scores don’t tell you that students are ignorant. On the most recent NAEP Economics assessment (2006), 42% of seniors reached the proficient level. That’s 18 points higher than the scores for the most recent NAEP in Civics. It sounds as if students know a lot more economics than civics. That would be a bit surprising since they are much more likely to study civics than economics, and civics doesn’t require all those equations and abstract principles. But again, it’s just that one test happens to be harder than the other.
I am not going to go deep into the weeds on the civics test scores, but I want to make one more point about them. We measure only certain things—mainly, factual knowledge about the permanent features of the US political system, like the three branches of government and Marbury v Madison. Kids do study those topics, and they do pretty well, in my opinion, on standard questions about them. We almost never test current events on standardized tests. Teenagers, like adults, are misinformed about some aspects of current events. Right after the 2012 election, we asked 4,500 young adults: ”Does the government spend more on Social Security or foreign aid?” (What’s the right answer, by the way?). Only 29% got that one right. This is the kind of thing that is rarely taught and rarely tested.
I said that the first myth was: Kids don’t know any civics! The second is: They don’t participate! According to Mark Brown in the Sun Times, “Illinois State Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka was doing a post-election interview on WBEZ radio [after the November election] when host Tony Sarabia turned the subject to the comparatively lower turnout of young voters compared to older voters.Sarabia asked if young people don’t vote because they feel their message is not being heard “No,” Topinka shot back. “They don’t vote because very often they’re lazy, and they’re too busy playing with their little machines . . . They’re just too in tune with texting and not in tune with what’s going on around them.”
Well, they actually did vote in 2012. The youth voter turnout rate was near a record high in 2008 and then, contrary to expectations, reached the same level again in 2012 even though young people were clearly less enthusiastic about the candidates. Volunteering, meanwhile, reached record levels in the early 2000s and remains considerably higher than it was in the 1970s.
This is starting to sink in. I am hearing less “Young people don’t participate” than “These young people are responsible for electing Barack Obama, and that’s a bad thing.”
The third myth is that schools don’t teach civics any more. Most (87.8%) respondents in our CIRCLE poll recalled taking civics in high school, or a class with another name that involved discussion of social and political issues. This rate is consistent with the fact that 86% of high school seniors in 2009 had a civics, government, or politics course on their transcripts. All 50 states have civics standards. Forty states require courses.
To be sure, the social studies curriculum has changed. In the mid-twentieth century, three courses were common: American government, civics (which emphasized the role of individuals in their own communities), and “problems of democracy” (which involved reading and discussing the news.) The latter two courses basically disappeared, but economics and other social sciences have become far more common. Overall, the shift is not from more social studies to less, but from courses about current events to ones based on academic disciplines. That shift, however, is countered somewhat by the rapid rise in “service-learning”: courses that combine hands-on community service with research and reflection learning. Between one quarter and one third of schools offer service-learning, down since 1999 but way up since 1979
Now, you might say that teaching a civics class is far from sufficient, and I would agree. As the Democracy Schools initiative in this state strongly argues, “civics” is not just the name of a course.
Civic education is accomplished by at least six deliberate activities in schools: 1) courses on history, government, social issues, law, and civics; 2) discussions of controversial public issues in various courses and events within schools; 3) service-learning; 4) all extracurricular activities; 5) student voice in school governance; 6) simulations. In addition, who is assigned to which school, how the school is architecturally designed; school size; how parents affect school issues, etc. may matter.
Do we have a problem at all? Can we just go home and congratulate ourselves that civic education is in good shape. Unfortunately, no.
For one thing, other educative institutions have lost the capacity or will to recruit young citizens into public life: newspapers, unions, membership organizations have all shrunk. 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. By the way, I recommend Robert Sampson’s brilliant book called Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect, published last year. Sampson finds that a strong organizational infrastructure boosts a community’s capacity for collective civic action, which has substantial benefits for the neighborhood’s safety and health.
The New York Times‘ Benedict Carey recently used Sampson’s analysis to write a good article about the Chatham neighborhood in Chicago. Racially segregated, economically challenged, and threatened by occasional random violence from outside the community, Chatham still has so much collective efficacy that it can usually hold crime at bay. Carey writes, “Chatham has more than a hundred block groups, citizen volunteers who monitor the tidiness of neighborhood lawns, garbage, and noise, as well as organize events.” When an off-duty Chicago police officer, Iraq War veteran, and civic leader named Thomas Wortham IV was shot to death outside of his parents’ house, “residents of Chatham didn’t wait long to act.” They arranged public events that were intended to reinforce collective efficacy and organized crime watches and other practical efforts to suppress crime. They were so effective that essentially no crimes were reported in the vicinity for months after Officer Wortham’s tragic murder. (This example comes straight from Sampson’s book but is retold in the Times.)
How to help more American communities become like Chatham is not an easy question, but it could mean better civic education that is more focused on helping people to be active participants in local civic life.
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 SES, the most advantaged kids dominate the opportunities. When we compare diverse schools, the ones with the most affluent families provide many more opportunities. Universal public schooling was established to create universal civic engagement, but it actually exacerbates inequality.
The question is not: Why can more kids name the Three Stooges than three justices of the Supreme Court? Believe me, if that’s what we want them to learn, we can teach it and test it, and they will memorize the names. The question is: Why are so many of our low-income and minority kids not being given opportunities to contribute to their communities in meaningful ways?
Civic education can be a pathway to better outcomes for young people, 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.
A study that we conducted at Tufts found that undergraduates who were involved in community service over a sustained period were more likely to be happy—psychologically fulfilled—than other students, as long as they saw their service as addressing serious problems. YouthBuild USA is a program that enlists marginalized young people and gives them opportunities to serve and lead. One graduate of the program told my colleagues, “Doing those kinds of things changes something inside of you, you develop a whole new kind of happiness inside of you—that you don’t feel like smoking weed, buying $150 dollar sneakers—it’s the kind of happiness that only you can get by doing good deeds and helping others.”
Finally, 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 Diana Hess and other experts find ideological and philosophical diversity in almost all social studies classes, and good classes are places where, thanks to skillful moderation, diverse young people can 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.
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.
We know what works at the classroom level—the six proven practices that I mentioned earlier and that are centerpieces for the Democracy Schools Initiative. Just to repeat, those are:
- Simply studying civics
- Moderated discussions of current, controversial issues
- Service-learning when well done
- All extracurricular activities as opportunities for leading groups
- Student voice in schools
The policy question is tougher. It raises some dilemmas:
- If we don’t test civics, it gets dropped or downplayed. But if we test it with standardized tests, they drive instruction toward knowledge and they create a new way for kids of schools to fail (unless we relax other tests). Many things can be tested but it us unethical as well as difficult to test values and out-of-school behavior.
- If we don’t require civics courses, they get dropped. But some requirements (such as the service-learning mandate in MD) seem to produce bad quality.
- In general, when we studied the mix of existing state civic education policies and their effects, we find NO EFFECTS at all (despite significant variation in the policies)
How can that be? For one thing, the existing policies are very modest. Some states require one course on American government; others do not. Some states mandate a multiple-choice test of civic knowledge; most do not. Some states allow early voting or registering on the day of the vote. But no state has policies that make civic education a priority throughout k-12 education and also assesses higher-order outcomes such as deliberation or policy analysis.
Besides, quality matters so much. No policy reform, by itself, can guarantee adequate and fair civic education in our schools. What students experience is affected by a whole range of factors, including:
requirements, opportunities, standards, evaluations, curricula, textbooks, materials, local civic associations, and teachers’ education and certification for civics.
These factors must be …
well designed, thoughtful, ideologically balanced, mutually consistent, developmentally appropriate, and broadly and equitably implemented in all of our diverse and largely self-governing school systems.
Reforming civics is a marathon, not a sprint. Rather than expect any reform to solve our civic education problem, we need to be there year in an year out, working on quality and equality.