Monthly Archives: March 2011

upcoming research discussions at Tisch College

These three events are open to the public.

1. Discussion with 2011 Tisch Research Prize winner John Gaventa

2. “Determinants of Health Among Caribbean Latinos” with Flavia Peréa and Linda Sprague Martinez

3. “Development of Korean Civil Society” with Prof. Sang-Il Han

1. John Gaventa, April 14, 2011 at Tisch College, 4:30-6 pm

Dr. Gaventa has combined rigorous scholarship with various forms of collaboration with communities. Such collaboration was the hallmark of his work at the Highlander Research and Education Center, which led to his being granted a MacArthur Fellowship in 1981. It has also been central to his 10 years of leadership at the Development Research Centre on Citizenship, Participation and Accountability, a global network facilitated by the Institute of Development Studies. Among many other products, the Center has produced an eight-volume books series of case studies on civic action from around the world, most of whose authors write from the Global South. Meanwhile, Gaventa chairs the board of Britain’s largest overseas NGO, Oxfam Great Britain, and plays other leadership roles in civil society. Gaventa will accept the Tisch Research award and discuss his work with Tisch research director Peter Levine on April 14, 2011 at Tisch College (4:30-6 pm). Appropriate for students as well as faculty, staff, and community partners. Please register through this page if you are interested in attending.

2. “Determinants of Health Among Caribbean Latinos”

Dr. Flavia Peréa and Dr. Linda Sprague Martinez

A faculty discussion co-sponsored by Peace and Justice Studies and the Tisch College.

Friday, April 15, noon-1:30

Mayer Campus Center room 112, Zamparelli Room

Lunch provided Please RSVP to Peter Levine (, who will reply with menu options for the lunch.

Drs. Flavia Peréa and Linda Sprague Martinez will discuss their research and present on their current projects in Jamaica Plain (funded by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities) and Lawrence (funded by the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation). Their work is community- and youth-engaged and focused on the socio-environmental determinants of health among urban Caribbean Latinos. They will discuss their collaborative, partnership approach to community based research, which emphasizes community leadership, youth development, and civic engagement. Linda Sprague Martinez is a Lecturer in the Community Health Program at the School of Arts and Sciences, and Flavia Peréa is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine at the Medical School.

3. “Development of Korean Democracy and Civil Society”

Dr. Sang-Il Han, visiting scholar in residence at Tisch College.

May 5, Noon-1:15 pm, Mayer Campus Center room 112, Zamparelli Room

Tisch College will provide light lunch, so please RSVP Peter Levine ( if you plan to attend.

Dr. Han has been chair of the Division of Social Science and chair of Public Administration at Yonsei University in Korea, where he is a professor. The topic will be “The Development of Korean Democracy and Civil Society” (a broad introduction). There will be time for discussion.

recent fiction by Karen Russell, Jed Rubenfeld, Harry Dolan

Bad Things Happen by Harry Dolan is a neatly constructed mystery with elements of noir, police procedural, and a drawing-room detective story. The author, a very clever guy with a philosophy degree, plays with some interesting ideas as he introduces a plot about mystery writers who may be killers. The two detectives–not exactly partners, but potential friends–are, respectively, a single mom and a tough guy with a fake name and an unknown past. Everyone except the killer is described with affection.

The Death Instinct by Jed Rubenfeld is even cleverer, weaving together such ideas as Freud’s reaction to World War I, the capacity of radium to kill and to cure, and America’s response to terrorism. A surprising proportion of the unbelievable events in the novel actually occurred, as the afterward explains. Freud and Madame Curie are among the historical figures who make appearances in this mystery/spy novel. I only wish that the two heroes weren’t perfectly competent, physically courageous, and handsome (possessing between them many languages and scientific disciplines), while the chief female character is so beautiful that she literally turns the heads of whole regiments.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell is in a whole different category, literature rather than genre fiction, but I mention it with these two works because it is equally suspenseful. Russell is an aphoristic writer, capable of passages like this: “Some things you know right away to be final–when you lose your last baby tooth, or when you go to sleep for the ultimate time as a twelve-year-old on the night before your thirteenth birthday. Other times, you have to work out the milestone later via subtraction, a math you do to assign significance, like when I figured out that I’d just blown though my last-ever Wednesday with Mom on the day after she died.” She is a self-conscious writer, MFA-style, an echoer of diverse American voices and dialects and describer of remarkable places. I feared that her plot would veer off into some kind of unbelievable fantasy, but it remained compelling to the end. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend reading it unless you can handle some truly bad things happening to innocent youth. Overall, it’s a powerful study of what it means to leave the family for the big, cruel world–in this case, symbolized by the urban mainland of South Florida.

Arne Duncan on civic education policy

(Washington, DC) At a conference here on Educating for Democracy in a Digital Age, the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, said, “A foundation in civics education is not a luxury but a necessity. … Civics cannot be pushed to the sidelines in schools. …. At the same time, civics instruction needs to be more engaging and exciting, both inside and outside the classroom. … It’s time for us to dust off and revitalize civics education for the 21st century.”

Duncan said that many students receive an implicit message that they don’t have to pay attention to civics. To succeed, they must focus on reading, math, and science. But “the skills acquired through civic education are critical to succeeding in the knowledge economy.” Duncan gave equal emphasis to the political importance of civics for a democracy. “Civics education is the first bullwark against tyranny.”

He cited statistics about low knowledge of civics. He assigned some responsibility to schools. “Too often, our schools are doing a poor job of transmitting civic knowledge.” The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress showed “distressing disparities–what we call ‘the civics achievement gap.'” (I am glad he uses that phrase, which you could read first on our website.)

Duncan cited iCivics, Rock the Vote, the American Bar Association, and Mikva Challenge as examples of cutting-edge civic education (giving Mikva an extended and well-deserved endorsement).

Duncan said that wherever he goes, people complain about the narrowing of the curriculum. History and civics are also important. It’s “simply unacceptable” for schools to have to choose between reading and math and civics.

He summarized the administration’s excellent proposal to replace small, earmarked civics programs with a much larger competitive pool of funding. His proposal, however, lumps civics together with all the disciplines currently subject to being crowded out of our schools. We would prefer a separate pool for civics so that it doesn’t get lost.

Civics is about giving students the skills for effective participation. The “need to improve civic education is urgent, but with great need comes great opportunity.” He called the Internet more than a source of information; it is also a platform for students to create and organize.

In response to a question about bullying, he said he was especially excited about opportunities for the students themselves to build zero-tolerance against bullying.

Duncan was one of the keynoters at the conference. Others included Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and former Rep. Lee Hamilton (the co-chairs of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools); the presidents of the MacArthur and McCormick Tribune foundations, and all-star academics like Joe Kahne and Diana Hess.

when finally I lie

The boy watches fluid in tubes, lab coats,
Hurried sneakers, hushed exchanges, and thinks
He could grow into one who consults notes,
Gives opinions, adjusts that thing that blinks
Beneath the window that reveals the wall
Of the mall, where later he will sip a shake.
The patient, watching the jagged line fall
That charts his spreading, swelling, burning ache,
Was once the boy and still by habit dreams
Of what he might learn to do and become.
No greater sorrow than to recall your schemes
Of futures past when at last you must succumb.
I am the patient and the boy, hoping I
Will forget these lines when finally I lie.

assessment: an overview

Recently I presented some thoughts about why and how we might use assessment in civic education. Most of my points apply to education in general. People seemed to find these ideas useful, so I offer my notes here.

Assessment for what?

  • “Formative”: to find out what students or other people know or can do before an educational experience begins, so that we can tailor the education to their needs.
  • As an incentive for performance. For instance, if students must pass a civics test to complete ninth grade (the theory goes), they will work hard at civics.
  • As a gatekeeper: perhaps no one should hold a high school diploma unless he or she can demonstrate particular knowledge.
  • To guide institutions or public policies. For example, we assess programs to decide whether to fund or require them; we evaluate teachers to determine their employment status.
  • For the improvement of programs or institutions: in other words, as helpful feedback to educators and administrators.
  • To impress outsiders, such as potential funders, with the merits of programs.

Assessment of whom?

  • Students–but we might choose to focus on average students, highly at-risk students, talented and motivated students who are potential leaders, or groups of students to see how they perform as teams.
  • Educators
  • Programs
  • Schools
  • States and other governmental entities

Assessment of what?

  • Students’ knowledge, skills, dispositions, values, or habits and behaviors. Note that the kinds of knowledge we want children to possess are enormously various and extensive. In the civic domain, skills encompass fairly typical academic skills (such as interpreting a written political speech) and distinctively civic skills (such as moderating a meeting or dealing with a free-rider in a group). Dispositions and habits can be assessed, but not when the stakes are high. Asking students to report on their own values and behaviors and then holding them accountable for their answers seems an invitation to lie.
  • Schools’ offerings–for example, what courses they provide; whether a student newspaper exists.
  • Teachers’ performance.
  • Programs’ effects: ideally, the changes in students that are causally attributable to their experience in a given program.
  • Pedagogical techniques or strategies, or elements of programs abstracted from specific programs. For instance, several evaluations of programs that include seminars for teachers have shown good effects on students. (Facing History and Ourselves is an example). But we do not know whether seminars for teachers, per se, are helpful.

Assessment by whom?

  • Program staff or teachers, who can assess students or programs
  • Supervisors, who can assess teachers or students
  • Expert evaluators or test-designers
  • Voters, citizens, or parents, whose role can either be informal (putting pressure on schools to remedy perceived failures) or formal (serving on evaluation committees, reviewing data)
  • Students, who can be asked for their opinions about teachers or programs. More interestingly, they can be asked to supply relatively objective data about educational experiences.

Assessment how?

  • Tests or test-like written instruments. These are relatively inexpensive, standardizable, and subject to public review; but limited to factual knowledge and fairly simple academic skills. They are limited, also, to the assessment of individuals’ work, not group work.
  • Performances or portfolios that are graded by teachers or juries.
  • Simulations or games–winning or scoring well on the game would lead to a positive assessment.
  • Evaluations based on people’s opinions of the program, e.g., college students’ course evaluations.
  • Longitudinal studies, which repeat some of the same survey items at different times. Repeating a survey very soon tells us nothing about retention. Repeating it after a long while precludes attributing any changes to a particular intervention. Repeating it many times is helpful but is generally expensive because of the costs of retaining individuals in a study.
  • Randomized experiments, about which I have written before. My favorite design, by the way, is a wait-list control, in which volunteer participants are assigned to receive the experience either immediately or after a delay, and the two groups are assessed simultaneously. Facing History and Ourselves, the Bill of Rights Institute, and the Center on Politics at the University of Virginia have shown that randomized field experiments of civic education are possible.

What we lack

In the civics field, we are most seriously in need of:

  • Tools for reliably assessing advanced skills, especially distinctively civic or leadership skills that are not also academic skills.
  • Tools for assessing participation in group projects and discussions.
  • Assessments of the quality of “inputs” (not what students know but what schools teach)
  • Well-designed assessments of the impact of professional development for teachers on their students.