my exchange with Beth Rubin about policy for civics

Paul G. Fitchett and Kevin W. Meuwissen have published Social Studies in the New Education Policy Era: Conversations on Purposes, Perspectives, and Practices. This edited volume is devoted to exchanges between pairs of scholars. My assigned debating partner is Prof. Beth Rubin from Rutgers, whose work I admire and who has influenced me a lot. There isn’t a whole lot of room between Beth and me, but we manage to disagree mildly in ways that might be illuminating.

I begin by arguing that the policies adopted so far by states and districts for civic education matter, but not as much as how such policies are implemented. Support for things like professional development makes policies either work or fail. I also note that the policy debate reflects disagreements about what should be taught. Given such disagreements, no one can expect to get the curriculum that she or he prefers enacted into law in all 50 states. I propose a division of labor: public schools should teach relatively uncontroversial, relatively basic civics, and community-based groups should add more politically charged content that reflects their diverse perspectives.

Beth understandably worries that the mainstream curriculum mandated by governments will, in fact, be biased. She argues that governments should make schools good places for learning, leaving civics curricula mostly unconstrained by policy. That would imply skepticism about policies like standards and tests, because they centralize decisions about the curriculum. I counter by offering a state policy agenda that includes standards, professional development, reforms of school discipline, and tests–if they are well done. This package is fairly minimalist, intended to create a baseline for all kids while leaving space for diversity. Beth ends the exchange with some concerns about whether the “baseline of knowledge” that I want to see in state standards can really be good for all of our kids.

The rest of the book is entirely devoted to similar debates, and it looks good throughout.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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