from the periphery to the center

Today was the public launch of the advisory committee of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools. The committe’s co-chairs, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Gov. Roy Romer (now the head of the Los Angeles public schools), spoke at the National Press Club along with Senator Harris Wofford, Judge Marjorie Rendell from Pennsylvania, and others. C-SPAN and Fox News had cameras running; I don’t know whether or when the event will actually air.

Senator Harris Wofford told an amusing but telling anecdote. To paraphrase: When he ran for the Senate in 1990, his consultant, James Carville, told him that his worst fear was that Mr. Wofford would go off talking about Gandhi, service-learning, and civic education. Those topics are “out there on the periphery,” Carville told his client, but no one can make them central. Indeed, Wofford famously won his Senate seat on a health-care platform. But there are ways to weave themes of active citizenship and democratic renewal into mainstream politics, I believe.

I also spoke. I’m having computer problems the last few days, but when I’m able to retrieve the file with my speech, I’ll paste it here (below the fold).

Like the high school debater that I never was, I’m going to speak for a short time and try to put a lot of facts before you quckly. I will leave it to our distinguished leaders to make a more eloquent case for civic learning. However, I do believe that the facts and data tell a pretty strong story.

First of all, what is civic learning? It includes classes on civics, government or history. Data show that these courses significantly increase students? knowledge and skills: for example, the skill of interpreting news articles and speeches. As we said in the Civic Mission of Schools report, “if you teach them, they will learn.”

Courses probably enhance students? behavior as well as their knowledge. In a poll that the Campaign sponsored along with several partners, young people who had taken a civics class were twice as likely to vote, twice as likely to follow the news, and four times more likely to volunteer for a campaign than those who had never taken civics courses. That doesn’t mean that a single course doubles voter turnout; the relationship is a bit more complicated than that. But the most careful analysis suggests that courses have significant effects on students’ behavior. And courses certainly boost knowledge and skills.

In short, courses are valuable, but civic learning means more than courses.

It also includes extracurricular activities, such as student government, school newspapers, and other organizations that give kids experience in working together, addressing problems, and managing voluntary groups. A very careful study that has followed the high school class of 1965 right up to the present finds that participating in extracurriculars increased kids? civic engagement when they were young, and the difference is still evident in their behavior now?forty years after they graduated. No program has ever been found that has nearly as much effect on adults’ participation in civil society. If we want to revive America’s communities, restoring high school extracurriculars looks like one of the very best strategies.

Community service is another element of civic learning. When service is connected to academic study, we call it “service-learning.” Careful studies show that high-quality service-learning enhances civic values and habits of service and sometimes changes kids? fundamental identities so that they see themselves as active citizens, even years later. Again, no program for adults has been shown to have that kind of impact on identities. We have our best shot at enhancing volunteerism if we give people opportunities to serve while they are young.

Kids also learn by discussing current events. Discussion boost knowledge and interest, especially when students feel that the conversation is genuinely open to diverse perspectives. It?s especially valuable for kids to use and discuss the news media, and even to create their own newspapers, broadcast news shows, and news-oriented websites.

If a school is organized as a true community in which students feel they belong and can play a constructive role, that too is a form of “civic learning” that is proven to have positive effects on students? skills and interests.

Students can also learn through simulations, such as moot courts, model UN, and (nowadays) elaborate computer games that are designed for educational purposes.

If anyone’s been counting, you’ll notice that I have listed six “promising practices” for civic learning. Students need a rich combination of all six practices.

Unfortunately, civic education is in decline, which is why our movement has been launched and has attracted such distinguished supporters.

Perhaps the clearest drop is in extracurricular activities. Leaving out sports, the rate of participation in school clubs appears to have fallen by half since the 1960s.

In the last three years, the No Child Left Behind Act has shrunk the whole social studies curriculum, including American history and American government courses, which had been pretty resilient until recently. The Center for Education Progress recently found that 71% of school districts had cut back time on other subjects to make more space for reading and math. History, Geography and Civics were the most heavily cut areas of the curriculum.

Finally, I would like to note that civic education is especially important for disadvantaged kids, although unfortunately they get less of it. According to a big federal study in 1998, students of color and students from low-education families were the least likely to experience interactive social studies lessons that included role-playing exercises, mock trials, visits from community members, and letter writing.

After 1970, we lost two courses from the standard curriculum: 9th-grade “civics” (which used to teach about the role of citizens in their communities) and “problems of democracy” (which involved discussions of current events). What was left was 12th grade American government and some advanced courses on social sciences. Those are useful classes, but many students drop out before they can take them. We know that one third of all youth and half of African American and Latino adolescents do not finish high school.

The result of these disparities in opportunities is evident when you look at outcomes. High school dropouts are much less engaged in their communities and in politics than people who completed high school. And the disparities start early. If one compares two groups of 14-year-olds?one group has highly educated parents and many books in the home and intends to attend college, and the other group lacks those advantages?the better-off group already displays far more political knowledge and is three times more likely to expect to vote.

I hope this brief summary of research helps make the case that civic learning–defined with appropriate breadth–is a powerful way to enhance American democracy and that we need to do it better.