Preparation for active citizenship not on education agenda

Original Reporting | By Diana Jean Schemo |


Tryptich of Capitol Building Supreme Court and White House

October 19, 2010 — At a time when educators and parents, politicians and advocates are all focused on reinventing public education — ushering charter schools into the mainstream, formulating new models of what and how teachers should teach, experimenting with everything from class size to teacher pay — one subject has remained strangely absent from the national discussion, left behind, with a handful of exceptions, by education activists on the left and right.

That is preparation for active citizenship: an understanding of the nation’s founding principles and documents, the structure of government, and the ability to analyze and think critically about politics and power.

Education in these tools of democracy is not among the subjects tested under No Child Left Behind, the massive federal law that demands schools close the achievement gap in reading and math by 2014. It is not a part of the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top, which offers billions of dollars to states that raise academic standards and tie teacher salaries to student performance, in the drive to make students “college- and career-ready.”

Across the spectrum of corporate leaders, colleges, and education advocacy groups — those that have either built the accountability bandwagon, jumped aboard it, or criticized its dominance  ­­— the need to educate young people to become active participants in the nation’s political life is seldom mentioned.

The idea that education is democracy’s incubator has deep roots in the United States, going back to the belief of Thomas Jefferson, considered the nation’s father of public education, that “democracy cannot long exist without enlightenment.” Why, then, aren’t education groups, or the federal government itself, demanding a third “c” alongside “college- and career-ready?” What about insuring that students are “citizenship-ready?”

Nothing, perhaps, more clearly illustrates the stepchild status of civics than its placement within the federal Department of Education, where civics falls not under the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, but under the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools.

Broadly speaking, preparation for active citizenship really connotes two related areas: civics and citizenship education. Civics, said Mary McFarland, past president of the National Council for the Social Studies — one of the few voices calling for greater attention to training for citizenship — gives young people the scaffolding to become active, aware citizens. It teaches them about the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, and the Federalist papers, among other key documents. Civics explores the relationship between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, and the role of a free press. It explains the tension between state and federal law, the role of judicial precedent and what kinds of issues might turn up at the ballot box.

The second area, what is often called citizen education, is more comprehensive, according to McFarland. It develops the practical skills for students to become full-fledged participants in the political life of their community or their country. It teaches them to distinguish between fact and opinion and between fact and fictions masquerading as facts. Citizen education teaches students to evaluate the strength of arguments on a given issue, to separate reason from emotion, and to challenge assumptions.

In examining the attitudes and actions of advocacy groups and others, Remapping Debate asked about both civics and citizen education (with the latter connoting, for example, the many ways that power is exercised to shape which bills are considered and which are enacted, and exploring the consequences of citizen silence and inaction).

McFarland said that the National Council for the Social Studies, whose members include nearly 28,000 social studies and history teachers, places “civic competence” at the pinnacle of education, describing it as the purpose of study in all the social sciences, from politics to religion, and from archaeology to anthropology.

“It isn’t like a democracy can just roll on and sustain itself. It has to have people who care about it, and want to sustain it and serve it,” McFarland said.  But the group’s efforts to secure a more prominent role for “civic competence” in the nation’s broader education agenda have drawn little support among advocates with more general, system-wide approaches to overhauling education. Judging from the work of educators and advocates engaged in school reform efforts across the political and ideological spectrum, training for citizenship is but an afterthought.

Nothing, perhaps, more clearly illustrates the stepchild status of civics than its placement within the federal Department of Education, where civics falls not under the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, but under the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools. There, said Rita Foy Moss, the program officer, civic education is seen as a way to “build character” and something that “improves the climate” in a school.

She added that the federal government could not dictate curriculum, and that participation of states in the programs was entirely voluntary.

But the federal government can, and does, demand attention to selected subjects. Race to the Top, for example, rewards states that emphasize strategies to improve achievement in science, technology, engineering and math.  Why wasn’t civics or citizenship education also part of the initiative?

Moss could not say, instead referring the question back to the Department’s spokeswoman, Jo Ann Webb, who did not make any official available to respond, after more than a week of repeated requests.

At the state level, a high profile “Common Core” of state standards, drawn up by the nation’s governors, state school superintendents and prominent advocacy groups, with backing from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, charts what schools should teach at every grade. The ambition of the standards: “to define college and career readiness.” The standards focus primarily on math and English language arts.

The English language arts standards spell out what schools should teach students in reading and writing at every stage of the road to high school graduation. They do include tasks relevant to active citizenship, such as “distinguishing among fact, opinion and reasoned judgment in a text.” The standards also incorporate what is described as “literary non-fiction” into illustrative reading lists (texts like Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” and George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”).

But the standards are not designed to apply these skills to particular subject areas, civic education included. Thus, the words “civics” and “citizenship” do not appear once in the body of the standards, and the word “power” appears once, and only in reference to the power of a literary text. 

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