the difficulty of changing educational policy

I should be optimistic about the prospects for better civic education–and (more generally) the potential for civic renewal in America. Within the last 10 days, I?ve had a chance to testify before the new American Bar Association Commission on Civic Education, which is co-chaired by Sandra Day O?Connor and Bill Bradley and includes other distinguished leaders. I?ve attended the National Council on Citizenship?s annual conference, with hundreds of participants. Next was an advisory board for America’s Promise, an organization with considerable clout that wants all adolescents to have, among other things, opportunities to serve in their communities. And today I?m participating in the third annual Congressional Conference on Civic Education, which convenes delegations from all 50 states. At the Congressional Conference, Justice Stephen Breyer, Howard Baker, Lee Hamilton, Tom Foley, Margaret Spellings, and other luminaries have addressed the plenary group with enthusiasm.

Yet I don?t think I?ve ever been so aware of the barriers to change. We know (more or less) what students should experience in schools to prepare them for democracy. They should take classes that introduce them to great principles and issues of democracy and that help them to see how these themes relate to their own practical concerns. Students should be able to serve in their communities and write about or discuss their service. There should be youth groups that they can join, including student governments and school newspapers. They should have opportunities to discuss current issues with neutral and well-informed adults as moderators. They should get a hearing when they express their views on the governance of their own schools. And they should occasionally play challenging civic roles in simulations such as Model UN, mock trial, or computer games about politics.

We know much less about how to change policies so that kids have better odds of experiencing good civic education. To influence education, legislatures and other powerful institutions can create or enact mandates for courses; mandatory assessments (either with our without high stakes for students); educational mandates and/or support for teachers; rules promoting freedom of speech and assembly and free, meaningful participation within schools; changes in the certification of education schools; and even changes in the fundamental structure of schools, for example to make them smaller, more diverse, or more thematically coherent. Lawmakers can also repeal excessive mandates in other subjects that compete with civics. They can provide additional funding, especially for extracurricular activities; or purchase particular textbooks and other teaching materials.

These decisions are made by school administrators, school systems, state agencies, the federal government, and independent associations such as accrediting organizations. Many thousands of policymakers have a say; often some groups play others to stalemate. The division of responsibility is one reason that successive waves of educational reform have left actual practices (both pedagogy and curriculum) remarkably unchanged over 50 or even 80 years. Of all areas of education, civics is particularly hard to shift, since very few policymakers are concerned about civic outcomes.

We are trying to create a movement in favor of the necessary reforms. The movement now has some traction, as shown by the prominent and dedicated people who have come aboard. But the effort would be much easier if we could formulate a short list of priorities that would apply everywhere. For example, it would make life easier if we could say that every student should have a service-learning class, or that every school should have a school newspaper. These proposals are brief enough to fit on a bumper-sticker and easy enough to be widely repeated.


However, in educational policy, one must respect federalism and local control. Matters really are different in each community; one set of reforms would not help everywhere. Besides, education is a fiercely guarded state prerogative, and states resist national mandates. Even No Child Left Behind, one of the boldest federal interventions in the history of US education, leaves it to the states to set most standards. This is one reason that we cannot recommend a single policy prescription for everyone.

Furthermore, it isn’t responsible to promote bumper-sticker-size slogans. So much depends on the quality of a particular approach and the degree to which teachers and students genuinely embrace it. A service-learning mandate would probably result in a great deal of low-quality programming, as indeed is the case in Maryland, where every student is required to conduct service for graduation, and most of what they do is meaningless. A mandatory civics course would make little difference, since most students who reach 12th grade already have to take such a course. Requiring two courses instead of one would backfire if the courses were poorly taught or if they replaced an equally valuable class.

Finally, we lack information about state- or system-level policies that make a difference in civics. There is a database (which my organization, CIRCLE, co-funded) of state civic-education policies. This database shows that some states require student to take several civics courses, to participate in service activities, or to pass a civics test. But no one has yet uncovered evidence that any existing combination of policies works better than any other.

For a while this year, I hoped that we might have an opening when major school systems try to create much smaller high schools, as is being done in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. If it turned out that small schools produce better citizens (all else being equal), then we could join forces with the proponents of small schools and have a real impact. It was partly with that goal in mind that I organized a National Press Club event on small schools. However, I soon found that there is mixed and fragmentary research on smaller schools and civic outcomes. We don?t have the basis, in good conscience, to sign onto the small-schools movement without reservations and qualifications.

Conceivably, reading education provides another opening. Today, elementary reading curricula include almost nothing but fiction. Reading about history and social issues might prepare young children better for the existing, high-stakes reading exams while also giving them more civic knowledge and skills. However, we know too little at present about the long-term benefits of acquiring civic knowledge at a young age.

In the absence of a simple policy proposal, our de facto strategy is to build a robust network of people in favor of civic education (broadly defined), so that there are individuals who care about civics in every state. They can then decide what policy changes are most important in their local circumstances. They can jump on opportunities to create good programs–or play defense when someone threatens to remove civics or social studies or cut funding for youth groups. In the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, we like to advertise these and other successes of our state teams over the last year:

  • The Colorado legislature unanimously endorsed the Colorado Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools and appropriated funds to the state Department of Education to assist districts with civic learning standards and best practices.
  • The Michigan Coalition on Civic Education prevailed in its effort to retain social studies as a key component of the state assessment program.
  • In New Hampshire, the Alliance for Civic Engagement?s Student Voice Summit set up a student group to spearhead proposals to the state legislature; legislators have joined with the Alliance to develop a policy strategy for civic learning.
  • In Vermont, the Campaign?s state team selected six pilot schools to develop model civic learning policies and practices that can be replicated statewide; each is paired with a policymaker to work on high school reform.
  • I am proud of our community for achieving these steps. Yet the modesty of their hard-won achievements reflects the tremendous difficulty of effecting substantial change.

    The only alternative strategy that I can imagine is somehow to provoke a debate between liberals and conservatives over citizenship, so that each side would promote a somewhat different set of policies. For instance, imagine if a major Republican candidate in ?08 called for all students to take a high-stakes factual exam on American history; and a major Democratic candidate demanded that every student have a high-quality experience in service-learning. Whoever won would probably find it impossible (or at least inadvisable) to enact an actual federal mandate. Nevertheless, the debate might have a beneficial effect at the state and local level.

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    1 Response to the difficulty of changing educational policy

    1. One and Four says:

      How can we teach democracy to students who don’t live in one?

      For many the drop off in civic participation and voting among youth is seen as a failure of schools. I agree, however our recommendations on improving schools to better foster such civic participation is where we diverge. Peter Levine, of…

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