(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.