Monthly Archives: June 2003

the Alexander bill

Last Friday, the Senate passed, by a 90-0 vote, the "American

History and Civics Education Act” (S. 504), that had been introduced

by Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN). The bill would create summer institutes for

k-12 teachers in college settings, where they would study civics and history.

It would give some high school juniors and seniors the opportunity to attend a

different set of summer academies; and it would organize a National Alliance of

Teachers of History and Civics, for the sharing of information and ideas.


Alexander said, “Civics is being dropped from many school curricula. More

than half the states have no requirement for a course in American government.

And American history has been watered down, textbooks are dull, and their pages

feature victims and diminish heroes. Because of politically correct attitudes

from the left and right, teachers are afraid to teach the great controversies

and struggles that are the essence of American history.”

I heartily

agree and think that Alexander’s points can be substantiated with solid evidence.

Partly as a result of the way we teach (or fail to teach) civics, the actual participation

of young people in politics and civic life is dropping, and the least advantaged

are the most often left out.

Many people in the "civic-ed" world

are now calling for a movement to revese these trends, using the Civic

Mission of Schools report as the blueprint. This movement or campaign would

have to address fundamental problems that go well beyond what Senator Alexander

mentioned. Above all, social studies are being squeezed out of the curriculum,

especially in grades 1-8, because of budget cuts and an emphasis on testing in

reading and math. S. 504 has no direct bearing on these trends. It deals with

the in-service education of teachers—a worthy goal, if not a crucial one.

But S. 504 could have an indirect positive effect if the participating

k-12 teachers and their college instructors become a national network of advocates

for civic education. Here’s hoping it passes the House and gets adequately funded.

a community blog

I just realized that for the last two weeks I have been absent-mindedly

dating my blog entries in May instead of June. The blog has been up-to-date, but

it has appeared to be month old. I suppose that the people who visited during

that period will think this blog is dead and won’t come back to read this message.

Maybe it’s time for me to use some automated software …

On a less embarrassing

note, we are thinking of creating an "arts blog" for Prince George’s

County. We would recruit several residents, each with a deep interest in a different

aspect of the county’s arts scene. We would give them training and ask them to

post at least weekly with news, reviews, and commentary. This would be an interesting

experiment in blogging within a geographical community, particularly one that’s

not particularly high-tech. It would also be a small contribution to the County’s

efforts to develop as an arts center. I think these efforts are promising. The

communities closest to Washington are affordable, near a major university, and

culturally diverse—perfect for artists. We have to be careful not to gentrify

the area in a way that displaces the current residents. But if arts development

is handled right, it could bring new resources into the community while preserving

its diversity.

obesity research

Here’s my latest scheme for

local civic work, connected to the Prince

George’s Information Commons. We would train young people to rate local food

sources (both shops and restaurants) for healthiness. We would then generate an

online map of the healthiest places in the community to buy food. This map would

be our direct public service. Meanwhile, we would use the data in combination

with local health statistics to test these hypotheses:

  • It is good

    for your health to live near a source of healthy food.

  • It is bad for your

    health to live near a source of unhealthy food.

  • It is bad for your health

    to live near no food sources (because then you have to drive and don’t get exercise).


doubt, healthy food outlets tend to locate near healthy populations, so we’d have

to be careful before drawing the conclusion that the presence of a health-food

store explains the good health of its neighborhood. But with the appropriate

statistical controls, we might discover that the availability of various kinds

of food does matter for health—and that would be useful for planners to know.

why distinguish weapons of mass destruction?

Why distinguish between weapons of mass destruction and conventional weapons, since the latter can be much more destructive? (Compare a modern air bombing campaign with the use of sarin in the Tokyo Metro system, which killed just a handful of people). Some think that this distinction is simply a self-serving rule imposed by countries, such as the United States, that have tremendous advantages in conventional weaponry. But I think there is a good reason for the taboo on weapons of mass destruction (which has actually kept respectable nations from using them since Nagasaki). Human beings have a tendency to use dubious tactics past the point where they are justified. This happens in “arms race” situations, when each party uses its enemy’s behavior to justify doing a little bit worse in return. It also happens when one party reasons that x + 1 units of some dubious behavior are not much worse than x units, which would be OK. By this reasoning, one can gradually justify any amount of the questionable behavior.

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educational standards and deliberation


and testing are hugely important in k-12 education these days. Meanwhile,

many people who are interested in improving American democracy would like to make

it more "deliberative." In a deliberative democracy, the public would

rule on the basis of one person, one vote, but with as much informed discussion

as possible before any vote.

Educational standards can be beneficial for

deliberative democracy. They are public statements of expectations for students

and schools, issued by accountable democratic bodies, and subject to debate. Standards

can be good or bad for education (depending on what they contain), but they seem

completely compatible with public deliberation and popular sovereignty. Testing,

on the other hand, is problematic from this perspective. Tests must be designed

by small groups in private. They can’t be public documents and still function

well as assessments. The designers of tests tend to be specialists, since designing

good instruments is a difficult, technical task. Thus experts have considerable

power and are held accountable to professional or technical norms, rather than

public judgment.

The risk of tests for deliberative democracy is clearest

in the case of norm-referenced exams (such as the SAT). To design a norm-referenced

test, experts write possible test questions almost randomly and try them out on

small samples of students. For the actual test, they retain those trial questions

that statistically correlated with past questions asked on the same test (i.e.,

those questions that the high-scorers tend to answer correctly). This is a strictly

technical approach that appears to avoid any judgments about what is important

to learn. But of course such judgments are made implicitly, since any test must

assess some skills or bodies of knowledge and not others. As a result, exams like

the SAT have powerful social effects, yet the public doesn’t control, and cannot

even debate, their content.

Such tests are bad for public deliberation.

Standards are potentially good. The problem is that we often don’t know how to

enforce standards without tests, and unenforceable standards are not good

for either education or democracy.

(By the way, I have been

asked to announce: "After a mini cyber-disaster, Amitai

Etzioni Notes is back up and running.")