Monthly Archives: November 2009

Wikipedia entries as class assignments

Jon Beasley-Murray, a Canadian professor of Spanish literature, assigned to his students the task of writing Wikipedia entries on various important Spanish-language novels. Each student would receive an A if his or her work achieved “GA [good article] status,” and an A+ if the work was named a Featured Article (of which there are about 2000 in English). Indeed, his student’s page on El Señor Presidente by Miguel Ángel Asturias became a Featured Article.

There is an insightful interview with Beasley-Murray on Wikipedia Signpost. He tells interesting stories about challenges and strategies for overcoming them. He also makes the general point that “educational technology” tends to ghettoize students’ work on private, amateurish sites. He prefers to involve his classes in producing real social media. His students’ best articles are being viewed about 600,000 times a year.

I like the idea of asking students to contribute to Wikipedia. Apparently, quite a few other professors and some secondary-school teachers have done so. In a similar vein, I asked my students this fall to publish their weekly writing assignments on a blog. We all agreed that it would not get much traffic, and it will probably be temporary, because the class is helping to build a much more sophisticated social networking website that will make the blog obsolete. Still, the act of “publishing” their work–making it accessible to search engines–has ethical and motivational significance. It means that they must consider what a community member would feel who came across their work. They are in the public sphere, which is where real citizenship takes place.

the Center for Civic Education audit

The Center for Civic Education, a national nonprofit organization that is mostly funded by the United States Department of Education, was recently audited. In USA Today, Matt Kelley’s article is headlined, “Audit: Civic education group misused $5.9M.” The Center is responding aggressively, disputing most of the accusations and asserting that the media coverage (which I think means only the USA Today story so far) “contain[s] numerous inaccuracies.” Their full response is here (PDF).

The Center is correct to note that the “audit is the first step in a process that could take several months and will result in a resolution made by the Department of Education.” We should hope that this process ultimately vindicates the Center and the charges turn out to be inaccurate or merely technical. I have read the full report but have neither the expertise nor the standing to assess it.

I am concerned that the fallout from this news may damage federal support for civic education, which is already very weak. Public schooling was originally established in the United States in order to prepare Americans for democratic participation. Even before the launch of universal public schools, during the founding era, Congress decided that since schools were “necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind,” “education shall forever be encouraged.” That statement is from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which provided for the creation of public schools in the new territories of the west. Founders like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Rush advocated more ambitious schemes of public education–not to improve students’ employment prospects or to boost the economy, but to help Americans to participate in self-government.

Today, the federal investment in civic education is minuscule: about 0.06% of federal education spending. Civic education was absent from No Child Left Behind and has a marginal place in the federal bureaucracy. In schools and classrooms across America, actual civic education is often scarce, or dry and alienating, or reserved for more successful students (who also tend to be more affluent). There are severe gaps in opportunities for civic learning. Those gaps reinforce unequal outcomes. The voting and volunteering rates are twice as high for young people on a college track as for their non-college-bound peers.

Thus the federal government has a fundamental responsibility, not to provide civic education to American youth, but to help develop and encourage effective methods that can educate and motivate all students, including marginalized ones. At present, almost all of the federal investment for that purpose takes the form of subsidies to the Center for Civic Education. There are arguments for and against that strategy. I have argued against it, but I acknowledge that the Center’s earmark has helped keep civic education alive in dark times and has created a durable, national network of civic educators. Whatever happens to the Center now, Congress and the Administration must increase–not drop–their support for civic education.

accountability: relational and informational

Borrowing an idea from the Kettering Foundation President, David Mathews: Today’s policymakers and experts tend to define “accountability” in terms of information. For instance, No Child Left Behind requires schools to collect and disclose reams of data about students’ performance, teachers’ credentials, etc. The idea is that well-informed parents will be able to apply pressure and make good choices for their kids. Similarly, the Administration has pledged to reveal unprecedented amounts of information about the stimulus spending (and is being beaten up for inaccuracies).

But most people do not think of accountability in informational terms. They think in terms of relationships. For example, in focus groups that Doble Research Associates conducted for the Kettering Foundation (back in 2001), parents were highly resistant to the idea that tests would be useful ways to hold school accountable. For one thing, they wanted to hold other parties accountable for education, starting with parents. A Baltimore woman said, “If kids don’t pass the test, is that supposed to mean that teachers are doing a lousy job? That’s not right. I mean where does the support come from? You’re pointing the finger at them when you should be supporting them.” Another (or possibly the same) Baltimore woman explained, “When I think about accountability, I think about parents taking responsibility for supervising their children’s learning and staying in touch with teachers.” This respondent not only wanted to broaden responsibility but also saw it in terms of communication. Many participants wanted to know whether schools, parents, and students had the right values. They doubted that data would answer that question. And although the report doesn’t quite say this, I suspect they envision knowing individuals personally as the best way to assess their values. The focus groups turned to a discussion of relationships:

    First woman: People don’t know people in their communities any more.

    Second woman: That’s right. I was raised in an area where you knew everyone. That’s just the way it was. But you don’t know your neighbors anymore.

    Third woman: I have neighbors that lived next door to me for nine years and they don’t even wave or talk to anybody in the neighborhood.

And so on–the conversation continues in this vein. Note that this is supposed to be a focus group about accountability in education. One Atlanta woman summed it up: “What we’ve got to do is develop a stronger sense of community between the schools and families in the community.”I suspect that she envisions a situation in which school staff and parents know each other, share fundamental values, and commit to support one another. Information is pretty much irrelevant.

I think David Mathews’ theory needs more investigation, including national survey data, because we don’t know for how many people accountability is relational rather than informational. But let’s assume that he’s right about most Americans. In that case …

First, we might discuss whether ordinary people or experts are wiser. There are pros and cons to both sides. Thinking about accountability in relational terms can be misleading. Just because you have known the new principal since you were kids and she wants her students to succeed doesn’t mean she is doing a good job. Besides, once we are dealing with state or national policy, you cannot possibly know leaders personally. Thus you may start trying to assess their “character” based on imperfect and often biased sources instead of measuring their performance.

On the other hand, the focus group participants are right that any informational measure, such as a test score, is narrow and simplistic and even trivial. Many of the most important issues are values; over-reliance on information can sideline those issues and drive a wedge between citizens and institutions.

Regardless of who is right, I think this theory has powerful political implications. Especially on the left, leaders (often highly trained and skillful with information) keep hoping that by providing the public with data, they will make people happier. But parents like charter and voucher-funded private schools even when they perform poorly. I am convinced that that’s because they feel they have a genuine relationship with those schools. There is a profound lesson here about how to reform education and other sectors.

how to get better citizens

In the Sunday Times, Tom Friedman lists some of our grievous national problems and concludes:

    The standard answer is that we need better leaders. The real answer is that we need better citizens. We need citizens who will convey to their leaders that they are ready to sacrifice, even pay, yes, higher taxes, and will not punish politicians who ask them to do the hard things. Otherwise, folks, we’re in trouble. A great power that can only produce suboptimal responses to its biggest challenges will, in time, fade from being a great power–no matter how much imagination it generates.

I agree with that and have staked my whole career on this premise. But how do you get “better citizens”? Probably the most common answer is somehow to send people better messages: broadcast shows, ads, news articles, or speeches that are more accurate, complete, informative, and motivating. Since most actual messages are delivered by the mass media (and most serious observers from across the spectrum hold the mass media in contempt), another prevalent answer is to criticize or–ideally–to reform the media.

I am basically skeptical of this diagnosis and strategy. A large and diverse population can choose among a vast array of media sources, most of which survive by selling advertising. This audience varies a great deal in ideology, and also in knowledge and interest; but the average level of interest in serious public affairs is not high. Inevitably, the media fragment, pursue niche audiences, and provide a great deal more entertainment than news. Even the most ambitious reform proposal–a kind of BBC for the United States, with a nonpartisan board and lots of public money–would have a limited impact on the whole landscape. (The BBC’s flagship “News at Ten” draws about 10 percent of the British population.) I know many people who hold Fox News responsible for bad aspects of our politics. But I see that channel less as a cause than an outcome of public tastes and values, plus media fragmentation. Conservatives who are frustrated by the “liberal media” should feel the same way about their least favorite channels.

To put the problem more concretely: I don’t think you can send a sufficiently powerful “message” to promote good citizenship (even if your name happens to be Barack Obama), because you’ll be competing with far too many other messages in an astoundingly crowded market driven by pre-existing motivations and tastes.

I therefore work on two alternatives:

1. Get them while they’re young, receptive, and a captive audience. Build really engaging, unbiased, motivating, and informative civic education into the school curriculum. My blog posts categorized as advocating civic education and a high school civic curriculum are about that.

2. Reform institutions so that hands-on participation by ordinary adults is welcomed and rewarding. The theory is that people who see tangible impact from their own civic engagement (mainly at the local level) will want to be informed and to exchange ideas and perspectives with people different from themselves. My blog posts about deliberation and civic reform are about that.

I welcome Friedman’s conclusion but wish he would get behind concrete solutions.

burning carbon

(On a flight from Miami to Boston) I have a budding friendship with the airport taxi dispatcher in Watertown, MA. A TSA guy at Logan has recognized me: “You’re the one with the DC driver’s license.” This fall, I’ve gone as far as Birmingham and Miami and back, each in a day. I know how to pick a seat on the Washington shuttle to maximize the chance of a view down the National Mall without obstruction from the wing.

I may be traveling a bit too much.