Monthly Archives: June 2009

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.

progressive reform requires trust in government

I’d be willing to bet that any climate change bill Congress passes this year will be an incremental improvement, but far from satisfactory. Likewise for health care. Not only will these bills have too little impact; they will also cost too much because corporate interests will have been bought off. Health and environmental reform could be accomplished more cheaply with more radical strategies, such as a single-payer health system and a straightforward carbon tax.

This situation is causing a lot of hand-wringing and calls for procedural reform, such as ending the Senate’s filibuster rule. I think I’m for that, but I have a somewhat different view of how progressive change may unfold.

For me, the basic issue is that Americans deeply distrust the federal government. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, when the top tax rate was over 90% and each new Democratic administration took on bold new domestic challenges, most Americans said they generally trusted the federal government to do the right thing. That has not been true since the 1970s, when the tide turned in a conservative direction. Campaign and lobbying money do frustrate clean reform efforts, but it’s also a big obstacle that Americans are fundamentally skeptical that the government can do a reasonable job. (This is the trend from American National Election Studies since they began in 1958:)

Some people (e.g., Thomas Frank, Paul Krugman) think that Americans distrust the government because of corporate and conservative propaganda. I tend to think, in contrast, that people know what their government is like from direct personal experience. Media coverage may be biased, but people aren’t so easily fooled. On the basis of their own experience, they have formed a negative view of government.

This wasn’t George W. Bush’s doing; in fact, one of the biggest temporary increases in trust occurred during his first couple of years in office (mainly thanks to Osama bin Laden). Bush didn’t deserve the trust he received from 2001-4, and Democrats were right to criticize his policies. But because Americans started with a very low baseline level of trust in the government as a whole, they didn’t attribute all of its problems to Bush or to his party. As trust fell, so did fundamental confidence that the federal government could handle any essential challenges.

It is certainly true that Americans deeply distrust corporations today and are open to government regulation–in the abstract. But whenever the issue becomes an ambitious government-run alternative to corporate markets, Americans get nervous. That is the context for policymaking in the early Obama years. There are powerful crosswinds.

If Congress could somehow pass bold, efficient legislation that really worked, that might restore trust. I think progressive members of Congress should continue to press for strategies like single-payer and a carbon tax. Procedural reforms should be on the table, too. But I wouldn’t depend on either of those approaches. Instead, I’d look for incremental steps that restore trust and that can build momentum. The more the Administration can involve Americans in both policymaking and actual public work, the better the chances for rebuilding trust.

“Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

(Washington, DC for a presentation) The ease with which we can analyze social statistics today is remarkable. There are huge, free data-sets all over the Internet. You can employ exploratory statistical techniques (such as probit models or factor analysis) to fish for relationships. Even easier is to find a column of numbers on a web page, copy and paste them into an Excel document along with a different column of numbers from a different source, and find out whether they correlate. It can take five minutes to accomplish a task that would have taken thousands of person-hours when my Mom was a young health statistician. Many statistical investigations that would have been completely impossible–such as a multivariate model of a Census data-set with tens of thousands of cases–are now quite simple.

Graduate students, faculty, think-tankers, bureaucrats, and even some bloggers are busy at this work every day. But I don’t think we understand society better than we did in 1960. At least, we don’t understand it in ways that help us to make the world better. We are richer as a nation, so we should expect life to have improved. In some respects, it has. Relative to our assets, however, I think our performance is considerably worse. How could rates of high school failure, violent crime, cancer, unemployment, depression, suicide, and poverty be stubbornly flat if we had developed better solutions through social science?

To be sure, bad policy doesn’t imply bad research; maybe there is a problem with implementation or with the motivations of the ruling classes. But figuring out how to address those obstacles should itself be a task for research. Besides, I am not overly impressed by the research-based proposals that are sitting around waiting for politicians and citizens to implement. At best, these ideas seem promising incremental steps, not game-changers.

What’s wrong? It could be that …

1) Correlational research provides limited understanding, because there are always unmeasured factors and influences. More powerful research is always experimental, and we don’t do enough of that. By the way, “experimental research” is not just a matter of randomly selecting treatment and control groups. It also requires bold and exciting new projects or institutions that can be evaluated in that way.

2) We don’t measure the important things. Test scores, yes; students’ wisdom and virtue, no. Voter turnout, yes; emerging political networks, not so much.

3) Our imaginations are too limited by our tendency to take actual facts (“data”) as necessary. Roberto Unger wants economics to be the scientific study of what might be possible. Instead, economics describes the present and recent past and infers from that description immutable laws. These laws may actually be subject to amendment, if we choose to change them.

4) Our attention is focused on the wrong levels or scales of analysis. Perhaps our scale is too modest. We ask whether interventions or programs affect outcomes, not which social philosophy is best. Or our perspective may be too broad and distant. We have tools for assessing whole populations, but few new techniques for understanding–let alone improving–specific neighborhoods, schools, or firms, let alone human beings. (There actually are techniques for those purposes, such as ethnography, asset-mapping, and appreciative inquiry, but they are vastly less influential than social statistics–and I am not sure they are satisfactory.)

the evasive passive

(In Providence, RI, for a Civic Education Institute) Tony Judt recently wrote a New York Times op-ed decrying the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League played his customary role by providing an angry letter of rebuttal. The substance of his letter begins, “Isrealis settled in the West Bank because it was deemed part of the historic home of the Jewish people. …”

I love “it was deemed.” That must have taken a while to come up with. Consider the alternatives. “The settlers deemed that the land was theirs”? That sounds a little imperialistic, doesn’t it? “The Israeli government deemed the land useful to them”? Not a helpful message for the ADL director to publish in the Times. “God gave the land to Jews forever”? Some people believe that–some Jews and some fundamentalist Protestants. It’s not, however, a line that Mr. Foxman wants to take, nor does it have a lot of force in international law or diplomacy.

Thus the passive–the great, responsibility-ducking passive–followed by a few strong active sentences with Arabs as the subjects. (“They rejected opportunities for peace.” “[T]hey rejected the United Nations resolution …”) So they did (those few with the power to make decisions); but the Isreali government also made choices, and now the mess is theirs.

service as a path to educational success

(San Francisco) I gave a presentation and moderated a session at the National Conference on Volunteering & Service yesterday. The topic was equity. But I’d rather describe a different panel, one that I attended as a member of the audience. The topic was service as a key to enhance student achievement. Angela Glover Blackwell was the moderator, and she started with an eloquent statement in favor of tapping students’ energies to address social problems and thereby give them skills and motivations for learning. She said that all the excellent social programs she knows include a dimension of civic engagement, because programs work best when people “own” them. She cited Harlem Children’s Zone as a model and referred to a new federal program, Promise Neighborhoods, that intends to replicate that model. Unfortunately, James Shelton III from the US Department of Education had to miss the panel at the last moment and so could not address that initiative.

Lisa Spinali, a friend of mine, talked about a large program that matches volunteers to schools in San Francisco (it is called San Francisco Volunteers, and she’s the executive director). There has been a gradual shift from placing anyone with an interest in a school to identifying real needs and finding the right skills. Early on, San Franciscans might offer to teach macrame and guitar and would be sent to a classroom. Today, a corps of bilingual volunteers translates at parent/teacher conferences.

Anthony Salcito works for Microsoft. He used the formula that I associate with the Gates Foundation: rigor, relevance, and relationships. These “three-r’s” are too often lacking in our schools. Salcito took the line that “service-learning” (combinations of academic study with community service) would help with rigor, relevance, and relationships.

Eric Schwartz from Citizen Schools made the case that the school day and school year are too short; there should be more learning opportunities for all kids during an expanded learning day. Citizen Schools creates a “second shift” of learning, with lots of interactive and fun projects. Volunteering comes into play in two ways. The “second shift” is substantially provided by unpaid volunteer adults and by AmeriCorps members. And the kids do, among many other activities, some service-learning.