reforming civic education

[11/25/09: Please also see my statement on the Center’s federal audit.]

In Tampa, meeting with social studies teachers) For quite a few years, almost all of the federal government’s investments in civic education have been earmarked for the Center for Civic Education (CCE). In 2009, the Center’s earmark from the US Department of Education was $31.9 million. CCE spent most of those funds on “We the People,” a high school government curriculum, and “Project Citizen,” a curriculum for middle school students who study policy issues of their choice and develop responses. CCE provides free texts and materials and offers training for teachers.

The available evaluations suggest that students in CCE’s programs learn the material. We don’t know some other interesting facts about these programs, such as how many students they serve, the students’ demographic profile, or how much the programs cost per student. We cannot compare CCE’s impact or its cost-effectiveness against alternatives. Still, in the absence of public data on those matters, I will stipulate that CCE probably benefits the kids who experience its programs.

However, it is not the role of the federal government to finance curricula or materials that serve a small number of American kids, year after year. The federal government generally doesn’t select particular textbooks that seem beneficial and then provide them free of charge to limited numbers of schools where the teachers happen to request them. Nor should it provide programs like “We the People” or “Project Citizen” on those terms. Thirty-two million dollars is not nearly enough money to make a significant difference for the national student population, if it is spent that way.

Instead, a minimum of $32 million should be spent on innovation and growth. Competitive grants should be given to school districts, schools, other local government agencies, nonprofits, colleges, publishing companies, software developers, and other firms that propose to develop and test new approaches to civic education or to increase the scale or quality of their efforts. Thirty-two million dollars would be useful seed money, and over time it could benefit most American kids.

The Administration is asking Congress to end CCE’s earmark. That seems like the right thing to do, but the next step must be to create a competitive alternative run by the United States Department of Education. Congress and the Administration should fund civic education–the original purpose of American schooling–at a minimum of $32 million for the whole country. Criteria for competitive grants should include: innovation, rigorous evaluation, a potential to grow and survive without further federal funding, and a focus on engaging disadvantaged kids.

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  • Peter Levine

    From Center for Civic Education Director Chuck Quigley, via email:

    Dear Peter:

    I would like to respond to your June 30, 2009, blog post titled “Reforming Civic Education,” in which you discussed the Center for Civic Education’s (Center) programs. Let me begin with correcting some factual errors in your post . First, the $31.9 million that you cite as the “Center’s earmark” is incorrect. The U.S. Department of Education’s FY09 budget provided $31.9 million to fund the Education for Democracy Act, an authorized section of the No Child Left Behind Act that funds Center programs and those of other organizations. The Center actually receives $15 million to fund the We the People programs that you cite.

    Program History. The Center receives this directed funding because the U.S. Congress has consistently supported this program of national significance and has found it to be highly effective in serving our nation’s schools. The We the People program began as an innovative course of study on the Constitution during the period of the Bicentennial of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. It proved to be an extraordinary success and Congress decided to extend the program beyond the Bicentennial period by moving it from the Commission on the Bicentennial to the U.S. Department of Education. Recently 99 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and 33 U.S. Senators signed a funding support letter on behalf of the Education for Democracy Act’s programs. Given the times and circumstances, this is an unusually high number of signatures for such a letter. We believe such support is provided, among other reasons, because the We the People programs continue to provide equal assistance to schools, teachers, and students in every congressional district in America. That is one of the many reasons the U.S. Congress has supported the We the People program for 23 years.

    The Center has always supported competitive grant programs for civic education. It succeeded in getting them authorized by Congress in the original legislation supporting the Bicentennial program and its reauthorization. However, understandably, the Center does not support the elimination of the programs supported under the Education for Democracy Act in order to divert their funding to a competitive grant program. It is neither ethical nor necessary for civic educators to attempt to destroy one set of civic education programs in order to gain resources for themselves or others. For civic educators to stoop to engaging in such behavior tarnishes the image of the field and reduces the likelihood of its gaining support from Congress and other potential sources of funding.

    National Impact. We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution and its companion Project Citizen program serve much more than a “limited number of schools.” At present those high-quality programs are being successfully implemented in all 50 states as well as the trust territories reaching an estimated 2 million students annually. If $32 million cannot reach “most American kids” in your estimation, through one organization, it will certainly not reach more students when parceled out though a competitive grant program.

    Research. Your blog post stated that evaluations “suggest that students in CCE’s programs learn the material.” This is certainly true, and in the most recent independent evaluation by RMC Research, students who participated in the Center’s We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution program scored 30% higher than their peers and 36% higher on average than college students on a comprehensive test of political knowledge. But the evaluations reveal a good deal more than gains in political knowledge. There is quality research that demonstrates the ability of programs developed by the Center to improve students’ citizenship skills and participatory dispositions as well as political knowledge. Nearly all studies conducted on Center programs demonstrate increases in political knowledge and improved research skills (Sokolow 2008; Truxal 2008; RMC 2007; Soule and Nairne 2006; White 2005; MPR 2004; Soule 2004; Holden 2003; Tolo 1998; ETS 1991). Political tolerance also increased for participants in the We the People program (Brody 1994). Research on professional development offered to teachers and professors shows that they are inspired and more knowledgeable about the Constitution, philosophy, government, civic education and innovative instructional methods (Fairbank et al. 2009;Yeager and Vontz 2008; Nairne 2006). It is not surprising that, in its evaluation, the Educational Testing Service characterized the We the People program as “a great instructional success.”

    In other studies, students who participated in We the People: Project Citizen demonstrated superior writing ability in articulating, researching, and advocating policy solutions in essays addressing public policy problems (RMC Research Corporation, 2007). In addition, both in the US and in emerging democracies, students who participated in Project Citizen embraced the notion of active, engaged citizenship (Vontz et al. 2000).

    Multiple studies of We the People alumni, tracked by those who registered for the alumni network, have found that alumni pay more attention to politics and the media and that they discuss politics more often. Furthermore, they volunteer to work for candidates, register to vote, and vote at significantly higher rates than their peers (Soule 2009). You are welcome to visit our website, http://www.civiced.org, where all of the research studies on the We the People programs are presented.

    Of course, we would like to conduct a longitudinal study on the effects of our programs and have collaborated with Richard Niemi and Beth Theiss-Morse, among others, to attempt to secure funding. We welcome more and better research that is theoretically grounded, innovative and includes diverse populations. But, in the meantime, we are confident that innovative pre-collegiate programs that employ best practices, including We the People and Project Citizen, will provide emerging generations the skills they need for effective citizenship (Jennings and Stoker 2008).

    Textbooks. Your blog post questions the role of the federal government in financing curricula and materials. Over the past 40 years, Congress has funded public and private organizations to develop hundreds of textbooks and other curricular materials in a wide range of subject fields through federal agencies such as the Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for Humanities, and the Department of Justice. Many of these textbooks have eventually been published by commercial textbook companies, and their authors have sometimes received personal royalties. In such instances, federal funds have subsidized commercial publishers, authors paid with federal funds have received personal royalties, and schools must pay to obtain the texts. By contrast, the Center provides more than 450,000 texts free to schools each year, no individual is paid a royalty, and income from any additional texts that are sold is used by the Center to further the goals of the programs funded by the federal government.

    The We the People texts provide far more intensive, rigorous, and effective instruction in the history, principles, and contemporary relevance of the Constitution and Bill of Rights than standard texts. The research evidence shows that students who complete the We the People program outscore other comparable students, university students, and adults in their basic knowledge of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Without these free textbooks, approximately 2 million students would not receive such instruction each year, as there is no similar program that provides the depth of understanding that We the People provides. Free classroom sets of these textbooks are made available in every congressional district of the country. State and congressional district coordinators conduct teacher professional development sessions that are open to all teachers. They work in conjunction with social studies supervisors, curriculum specialists, and principals, as well as with community volunteers.

    Student Participation. Statistics on student participation in the We the People programs are freely available by contacting the Center. Currently, approximately 2 million students nationwide participate in the We the People and Project Citizen programs at the upper elementary, middle and high school levels—a significant number of students by any measure. Since the inception of the We the People Programs in 1987, more than 30 million students and 90,000 educators have participated in these innovative courses of study. Clearly, theses are programs that are providing valuable curriculum and professional development to teachers everywhere and making a significant difference for students.

    Cost per Student. The We the People program is extremely cost effective at a rate of about $7.50 per student—far less than the retail cost of one standard history or civics textbook. Please contact me directly if you need any additional information about the work of the Center and the federal investment in these programs.

    Innovation. The Center’s programs are innovative. The We the People program’s student text, recently updated, embraces innovative, research-based teaching methodologies that engage students. These methodologies are proven to increase students’ performance in civics as well as their motivation to learn and to participate in school and community activities. Teachers and coordinators also report student improvements in literacy. You might take a look at the White House blog on civic participation so that you can read about the impact of the We the People Programs in the words of the students who have participated in them. Here is the link: http://blog.ostp.gov/2009/06/11/strengthening-civic-participation/#comments

    Minority Participation. Because the Center has an extensive network of coordinators who implement the We the People Programs in every congressional district, the programs serve inner-city schools, the rural poor, and diverse suburban schools. In addition to its basic program, the Center makes extra efforts to reach out to educationally disadvantaged students. For example, the Center is conducting programs in partnership with Native American communities, high-needs and high-risk communities, diverse minority communities, and programs serving largely Spanish-speaking populations. I note that a New York City public school with a high-needs student body represented the state in the National Finals of the We the People Program; the school has since been designated a “public school of excellence” by the U.S. Department of Education. A Department of Education Deputy Assistant Secretary who visited a disadvantaged school in Philadelphia during the Bush administration stated that when she went into the classroom she was “proud” to see these underprivileged students were using the We the People textbooks supported by her agency.

    You have every right to voice your opinion about the federal role in civic education. You also have the right to call for the elimination of funding of an existing program as you have done. But it does not do for a research organization of CIRCLE’s stature to make assertions first and check facts later.

    If you would like to place this response on your blog, please do so.

    If you would like to receive more information about our programs, please contact me at your convenience.

    Cordially,

    Chuck Quigley

  • Peter Levine

    I appreciate Chuck’s contributions to civic education (and to this discussion). His position is understandable and by no means without merit, although I disagree–especially about the strength of the evaluation methods and results (which I have reviewed quite carefully). I shouldn’t have written that the Center’s earmark was $31.9 million, because it shares that sum with the Close Up Foundation, National Council on Economic Education, NCSL, and Indiana University. I’m pretty sure the proportion of those funds that CCE absorbs is very high; I would be interested in the percentage. Certainly, the $15 million that Chuck cites as funding for “We the People” is only part of its federal earmark.

    In my view, the ethical thing to do is to spend public money on the most effective programs, which are best identified in a competitive, juried competition that requires tough evaluation. The best way to reach all kids is to spend public money on program development, experimentation, evaluation, and efforts to “scale up”–not on repeating the same program annually. I have little doubt that “We the People” has some value for the kids it serves, although a randomized field experiment would be the best way to tell that.