Category Archives: advocating civic education

The Educating for Democracy Act of 2020

Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) and Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) have introduced the Educating for Democracy Act of 2020. It would significantly increase federal investment in civic and history education. It is the Senate companion to the U.S. House version of the Educating for Democracy Act that was introduced on September 17th by Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Congressman Tom Cole (R-OK). 

Note those D’s and R’s–this is bipartisan legislation with support from influential Members on both sides of the aisle.

The Act would authorize $1 billion in federal investment in civic and history education, including research, innovation and teacher professional development. Funds would go to state and local education agencies to strengthen and improve civic and history education; to non-profit entities to develop or expand access to curricula, instructional models, and other programs; and to colleges and universities to educate future elementary and secondary school teachers. The bill would also require the National Assessments of Educational Progress (NAEPs) in civic and history education to be conducted every two years at grades 4, 8 and 12, with state level results made publicly available so that states can be tracked and assessed.

The full bill summary is available here

Senators Coons and Cornyn and Representatives DeLauro and Cole will reintroduce this legislation in the new congress in January, but it is important to persuade U.S. Senators to co-sponsor the bill now. Please be in touch with your own Senators.

who needs civic education?

The Monmouth University Poll released on Nov. 19 asked people (among other questions), whether Trump has done more than other presidents to undermine or to uphold the Constitution, whether respondents fear what their political opponents would do to the country, and whether Donald Trump has “drained the swamp” or made corruption worse. Here are the responses by age group.

Young people are the least likely to think that Trump upheld the Constitution, least afraid of their opponents governing, and most likely to believe that Trump worsened corruption.

I suppose reasonable people might debate these questions. A very conservative person might believe that Trump’s judicial appointments are saving the Constitution. A thoughtful progressive might fear what Trumpian Republicans would do to the country.

But generally, we would want people to answer these questions in the negative. Citizens should know that Trump disparages the Constitution, that it’s important to cede power when opponents win elections, and that the forms of corruption reported during the Trump administration are deeply problematic.

Of course, everyone needs civic education. The young need it most because they are the future and because they must be equipped to become more effective as citizens. But if you want to know who demonstrates the greatest deficits in basic civic dispositions, it is not the young.

the debate shows why we need civic education

Imagine young Americans watching last night’s debate. Try telling yourself that we have a special problem with youth. Try telling yourself that young people’s understanding of the system, commitment to democracy, or civic and personal virtues represent particular deficits.

Young Americans do urgently need and deserve more and better civic education–meaning not only courses and curricula by that name, but a whole k-12 education that prepares them to be active and responsible citizens. This need is critical.

But the reason is not a decline in civic education since Donald Trump’s youth (or mine), nor a decline in young people’s knowledge, skills, and virtues. The evidence about how courses and requirements have changed over time is mixed and ambiguous, but we never offered much civic education. Outcome measures such as the NAEP Civics Assessment are remarkably flat. Certainly, American history is presented much better now than in my day, in part due to mountains of valuable scholarship.

Improving civics is an urgent need not because it used to be better but because older people have handed today’s youth a republic in disastrous condition. The fiasco of the debate serves as an apt metaphor for the whole system. One can assign most, or even almost all, of the blame for last night to Donald J. Trump; nevertheless, the debate encapsulates our whole era.

Civic education is not well positioned to address some aspects of the problem. For instance, presidential overreach is on Suzanne Mettler’s and Robert C. Lieberman’s list of Four Threats, but it is not something that civics can directly fix; nor is gerrymandering; nor is income inequality. Trump himself is a threat (according to me), and he must be dealt with at the polls and then perhaps in the courtroom, not in the classroom.

However, on their list are two problems that civic education can address: hyper-polarization and conflicts over who belongs in the citizenry. Students can learn to deliberate with people who disagree and can learn to understand, appreciate and include all their fellow Americans. Some would add misinformation as yet another threat, and it is also something that civics addresses.

Saving the republic is not the only reason to teach American history, government, and civics. These are intrinsically interesting and worthy topics. Learning about them enriches the mind and soul. And teaching social studies demonstrably improves reading scores. But saving the republic is a pretty good reason to focus on civics, now.

what if the traditional and student-centered pedagogies go together?

I’m helping with the evaluation of a civic education curriculum. I don’t want to go into details because this is an unpublished evaluation for a specific organization in a particular context. However, I have observed an interesting pattern and wonder what explains it and whether it generalizes.

We asked both the students and the teachers about various pedagogies. For instance, the students were asked to evaluate statements like these (among others):

  • Memorizing facts was the best way to get a good grade from teachers my classes.
  • Teachers lectured, and the students took notes.
  • Students were encouraged to make up their own minds about issues.
  • Teachers encouraged students to express their opinions during class.

Their teachers were asked about the same list of pedagogies, but the questions for them were phrased in terms of how much they used each approach.

The goal was to distinguish various approaches and then correlate them with things like the number of correct answers to factual questions, students’ skills, and their beliefs about democracy. Then we could see whether, for example, students who discussed issues more in class were more confident about their skills for discussion. The findings wouldn’t be causal, but they would be suggestive.

In the actual data, the most teacher-centric and the most student-centric approaches (if you can accept those descriptions) correlated. For instance, there was a positive correlation (0.29) between “Teachers encouraged students to discuss political or social issues about which people have different opinions” and “Memorizing facts was the best way to get a good grade from teachers in my classes.” Likewise, there was positive correlation (0.28) between “Most students felt free to express opinions in class even when their opinions were different from most of the other students” and “Teachers required students to memorize facts or definitions.” The correlations were even larger in the teacher data.

Most of the student outcomes–especially their ability to answer factual questions–correlated positively with all of the pedagogies. Students were more likely to know the facts if their teachers lectured and if they discussed issues–not surprisingly, since these two pedagogies correlated with each other.

One interpretation is that some students just got more of everything than the others–their “dosage” was higher. But I don’t think so, based on what I know about the intervention. Besides, the questions weren’t phrased in a way that should measure dosage.

Another interpretation is that these approaches should and do complement each other. I can certainly see why good teachers might say both “I encouraged students to express their opinions during class” and “I placed great importance on students learning facts.” (These responses were correlated at 0.8).

A third interpretation is that these questions don’t yield valid data, because teachers and students are not very aware of the pedagogies they experience, and are especially unaware of how their experiences compare to others’.

I’m wondering whether the positive correlation between apparently contrasting teaching styles is commonly observed.

Putting the US Constitution in its Place: A Broader Agenda for Civic Education

I put a draft chapter on Academia.edu in case anyone is interested in commenting. It is for a forthcoming volume edited by Carol McNamara about American citizenship.

The abstract:

Almost all American students are required to study the formal structure of the US government, and most perform fairly well on concrete, factual questions about the Constitution. But there is much more for competent citizens to learn. After I explore some valid reasons to include the Constitution in required curricula, I argue that the document provides a poor framework for civics as a whole, giving students a distorted view of the social world and failing to motivate them for ethical civic engagement. I conclude with a sketch of a curriculum in which the US Constitution has a place, but a fairly modest one.

Here is an excerpt:

… the Constitution is a distorting lens through which to view the social and political world. It is, after all, a charter for the federal government of the United States, albeit one that protects the rights of the states, associations, and individuals. It has much to say about the three official branches of the national government. It also mentions certain other institutions that seemed important to its 18th-century authors, such as the armed forces, militias, and privateers (“letters of marque”); religion and the press; lawyers (“Assistance of Counsel”); and associations and public assemblies. It does not mention any of the following components of our 21st-century system: political parties and lobbies; unions and organized professions (other than the law); permanent regulatory and national security agencies and the civil service; for-profit and nonprofit corporations and capital markets; or broadcast and digital media and the Internet.

Courts strive to apply constitutional principles to these modern institutions by expanding 18th-century categories. For instance, publicly traded, general-purpose corporations—which became common in the 19th century—are treated as examples of “associations” under the First Amendment.* I lack the competence to assess such rulings, but I think that the Constitution is problematic as a curricular framework. A curriculum based on that text will leave scarce time for analyzing most of the institutions that actually structure our lives, because they are unmentioned in the document.

While studying the First Amendment, students might be invited to think about the types of associations, religions, and equivalents of “the press” that exist in our time. But that is an odd and constraining way to investigate the structure and functions of Facebook, the Democratic Party, Sunni Islam, The Washington Post and its parent holding company, Black Lives Matter, the National Rifle Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and General Motors, to name just a few “associations.” A course on how our society works would go deeply into those organizations and give much less time to the question of how the US Constitution applies to them.

And another:

A heavy emphasis on the Constitution also implies a causal theory that is sometimes made explicit in k-12 classrooms. Students may take away the thesis that our society can be explained by the Constitution and the founders’ vision. The world we observe around is the one the founders “framed” for us.

That thesis is, at best, contestable. The organizations, norms, and systems of the United Kingdom and the United States today are in many ways similar, despite the fact that the USA has an idiosyncratic (some would say, “exceptional”) written constitution, whereas the British constitution is unwritten and has very different components: a monarch, an established church, a cabinet that is part of Parliament, and parliamentary sovereignty. Meanwhile, both the USA and the UK function very differently from the same countries a century ago. The reason is not that they have changed their constitutions profoundly but rather that urbanization and then suburbanization, industrialization and then deindustrialization, capitalism and then the welfare state, immigration and internal migrations, technology and global capital markets have transformed these two societies—more or less in parallel. The causal impact of the US Constitution on the USA seems limited.


*“Corporations and other associations, like individuals, contribute to the ‘discussion, debate, and the dissemination of information and ideas’ that the First Amendment seeks to foster.” Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U. S. 1 (2010), quoting Bellotti, 435 U. S., at 783. See also: on teaching the US Constitution; the Citizens United decision and the inadequate sociology of the US Constitution; liberals, conservatives, and love of the Constitution; is our constitutional order doomed?; and how to teach the constitution of cyberspace.