other threads (collected entries on recurrent themes)
•an experimental high school civics class
•Iraq and democratic theory
•The Internet and civic life
•rethinking the left
•deliberative democracy work
•moral philosophy


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February 27, 2004

The most interesting reading on this blog today are the comments and the link that others have contributed in response to my post on Howard Dean. (See yesterday.) On a similar topic: I spoke this morning to the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) conference. I talked about the importance of civic education and the main threats to it, hoping to recruit some Secretaries of State as allies. They are, after all, responsible for the election system in its broadest sense; and civic education makes people into voters. Then a bunch of colleagues and I held a conference call to discuss how we can fight to retain the NAEP civics assessment. (See February 6th's post.) I'm quoted in a Gannet News Service story: "Young voter turnout did jump initially — up fourfold in Iowa — though it has leveled off as it appeared the Democratic nomination had been settled. 'There’s no place where the turnout was down,' said Peter Levine, deputy director of a Maryland center that studies young voters. 'It probably bodes pretty well for the general election.'" And now I'm off to talk by speaker phone to a class of University of Wisconsin students about why youth don't vote.

February 6, 2004

The NAEP, often called the "Nation's Report Card," is a voluntary, federally-funded assessment of students' progress in a field. Those who support the Civic Mission of Schools agenda favor a big expansion of the NAEP Civics Assessment. We want the Civics NAEP to be given every three years with separate representative samples in as many states as possible. We have argued that this is an important way to hold states--but not individual kids--accountable for civic outcomes. Furthermore, we believe that the NAEP civics assessment is a good instrument.

February 4, 2004

I'm quoted in an article about how to manage controversial issues in elementary and secondary classrooms: see "Hot-Button Handling" from District Administrator Magazine. I make a couple of points in the article, but this is the one that I consider most important: "There is no question that there are horror stories about partisan teachers, racist teachers, teachers [who] give extra points for bringing in certain campaign signs. Those are disciplinary issues and should not be allowed to happen," Levine says. "But do we throw the baby out with the bath water?''

I think we need to cut administrators some slack on those relatively rare occasions when teachers try to indoctrinate kids politically. If we punish administrators in such cases, they get very nervous and will discourage all political discussion in schools. And then kids can't learn about issues.

February 3, 2004

I'm in Princeton, NJ, staying for 24 hours at the headquarters of the ETS, the people who bring you the SAT and your other favorite standardized tests. I'm here with a group of civic education advocates, trying to learn more about testing. A system of high-stakes testing may be good or bad for education in general (I'm genuinely unsure about that). For civic education, it poses three problems:

1) Civic and political knowledge is usually not tested, at least not with high-stakes exams. What isn't tested, isn't taught. But even enthusiastic proponents of standards and accountability are leery about piling a civics exam on top of all the other tests. There is thus a serious danger that we will lose civics from the curriculum.

2) Civic knowledge, while important, isn't all we care about. We also want students to develop civic attitudes, values, habits, skills, and behaviors. Yet we don't know how to test these things.

3) A good approach to civic education is to involve students, teachers, staff, parents, and community-members in the governance of schools. But to the extent that important policy issues are determined by standards and tests, there are fewer important decisions to be made locally.

Nevertheless, there may be ways to infuse some civic content into the existing system, and that's what I'm at ETS to explore.

January 9, 2004

I met this morning with Rachel Tompkins, president of The Rural School and Community Trust. I was persuaded that civic education is exceptionally important in rural schools. First of all, rural areas face serious economic and social problems because they are devalued--young people feel that they have to move to big cities to succeed. Developing a positive understanding of community (through research and activism) is part of civic education, and it could reduce the "brain drain." Second, many rural educators believe that rural schools are deprived of their fair share of state education funding. If we assume (for the sake of argument) that this is correct, then rural students can do themselves good and learn about civics by advocating for more funding. Third, it is a general truth that schools work best when they are supported by adult citizens who participate in a rich civic life, with lots of meetings, networks, and organizations. In rural areas, schools provide an essential mechanism for building such networks, and students can play important roles. Many of these factors also apply in urban schools, but we tend to forget about the rural sector. As Rachel points out in this interview, 14 percent of students live in areas with populations of 2,500 of smaller, and 98 percent of the nation's poorest counties are rural.

Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2003

I spoke yesterday at the Learn & Serve America conference, which convenes people who run federally-funded community-service programs in schools. I talked about the Civic Mission of Schools report, which my organization and Carnegie Corporation of New York published earlier this year. One person in the audience said that he had read the first sentence to colleagues back at his home college, and they interpreted it as ridiculously and offensively conservative. Neither the questioner nor I had the report with us, so we argued about exactly what it says. In fact, it begins as follows: 

"For more than 250 years, Americans have shared a vision of a democracy in which all citizens understand, appreciate, and engage actively in civic and political life. In recent decades, however, increasing numbers of Americans have disengaged from civic and political institutions such as voluntary associations, religious congregations, community-based organizations, and political and electoral activities such as voting and being informed about public issues."

I didn't write this language, but I like it and would resist seeing it as conservative. I do think that there has been strong ideal of equality and democratic participation in America since its founding. (Reality has been a different matter, but ideals are important.) Moreover, the last few decades have witnessed substantial and troubling declines, especially a one-third drop in youth voting and a four-fifths drop in young people's expressed interest in news. Incidentally, these trends are of greater concern to liberals than to conservatives, because they result in a smaller and older electorate. What's more, one reason for these trends is the demise of traditional mobilizing institutions, especially unions. If there's nostalgia in the report, it's for the activist 1960s, not for 1950 or 1850.

Friday, Nov. 7

Salt Lake City: I gave the keynote luncheon address today at the International Service-Learning Research Conference. I argued that we need research that tests whether service-learning (i.e., combinations of community service with academic study) works as well or better than competing approaches to civic education. The best way to prove causality is an experiment in which students are randomly assigned to the "treatment" (here, service-learning) or to a control group, and then the two groups are compared. That's the "gold standard," although there are ways to approximate random selection if it proves to be impossible. There has never been anything like a random experiment to test whether (or how well) service-learning works as civic education.

Several people who spoke from the floor expressed the views that (a) research will never settle any debates in education, because the results are always murky and contested; and (b) policymakers won't listen to research, no matter how strong it may seem. I said that for us, research is necessary but not sufficient. I realize that scholarly papers don't just jump off the shelf and pass legislation; we also need political organization. The service-learning movement is organizing better, as shown by the robust defense of Americorps this fall. But research is necessary because we lack a large or wealthy constituency, so policymakers don't have to listen to us. Fortunately, there are some decision-makers in government, higher education, and philanthropy who genuinely want to achieve the best outcomes, and they would support service-learning if it really seemed to work. At present, they have reason to be skeptical.

Friday, Oct. 31

I was in New York City today, trying to help raise foundation money for a campaign to implement the recommendations of the Civic Mission of Schools report. (The last sentence contains far too many prepositions, but I'm too tired to fix it.) We are proposing that coalitions in several states would advocate policies to promote civic education. A multi-state advocacy campaign will cost a lot of money, but after today, I'm cautiously optimistic that we will be able to raise the necessary funds.

Wednesday, Oct. 29

Colorado Springs, CO: I'm at a conference of developmental psychologists, talking about service-learning. To repeat a definition used below, "service-learning" is some combination of community service with academic work on the same subject. Almost half of American high schools claim to use this approach. Most of the important debates about service-learning are really about values: Do we want to produce caring citizens who are likely to volunteer and provide face-to-face services? Do we want to produce citizens who are aware of social problems such as homelessness and hunger and may later act politically? What kinds of social and political knowledge do we want to foster? And so on.

The papers by the developmental psychologists were highly "normative": full of moral claims. I was a little afraid that they would want to present these claims as scientific, as based on technical expertise. In my view, that would be illegitimate. But the psychologists I talked to emphasized that their normative positions do not follow from their research. Rather, developmentalists enter the field motivated by a set of moral concerns, which draw their attention to certain facts about the way children grow. In particular, they tend to believe in the intrinisic value of activities that are normal at each stage in development. Thus they don't only see service-learning as an "intervention" that may produce discrete outcomes much later in life. Service-learning is rather something that people do for partly intrinsic reasons. This approach raises a researchable, empirical question: is service-learning deeply satisfying and rewarding for participants while they are doing it?

I find the moral motivations of developmental pyschologists (at least the ones I have met here) very attractive.

Tuesday, Oct. 28

I'm in the air, en route to Colorado Springs for a conference on service-learning and cognitive science. I'll explain what that means once I've participating in some sessions and understand the topic better.

Yesterday, I spoke at a conference sponsored by the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools within the US Department of Education. This is the office that has responsibility for civic education, and the assignment may be a bureaucratic accident. But it does raise the question: Is there a form of civic education that can help makes schools safer? Perhaps a standard view is that "good citizens" are those who don't abuse drugs or act violently; thus "civic education" means reducing such antisocial personal behavior. I would like to endorse an alternative position advanced by Dr. Joel Westheimer at yesterday's conference. Joel argues that we'll only make schools safer by helping to create active, critical, participatory democratic citizens who strive for justice. "Justice-oriented" civic education will reduce crime because (a) teaching kids to be civic activists may steer some away from negative roles; and (b) if there is a critical mass of active citizens in a school, they may be able to address immediate causes of crime, such as a lack of after-school activities.

Clearly, creating "justice-oriented citizens" would be good even if it didn't make schools safer. Whether there is a link between the best forms of civic education and safe schools is an empirical question. I don't know whether it has been answered. But it is plausible to imagine that youth civic engagement would reduce crime.

Brad Rourke writes:

I was intrigued by your discussion of Dr. Joel Westheimer's argument that creating "justice-oriented" citizens will have beneficial effects on schools.

But, I am discomfitted by half of his argument. I would counter that creating citizens -- in a normative ense of the word -- with just about any "orientation" will have beneficial effects on schools. It's another way of saying that as we improve a school's surrounding community, the school itself and the students therein will benefit. As will all institutions that require a relationship with citizens to operate effectively.

Why, I would go on to ask, do the activists need to be "justice" oriented? I assume that the use of justice here is not in terms of law enforcement but rather "social justice." In other words, a very particular sort of political orientation. And so, one might worry that what is truly being said is: "If more people were to engage in my kind of activism, then schools would be a better place." But, why not other kinds of orientations and activism? I could imagine that if there were a concerted attempt to create more "faith-oriented" citizens in a commiunity that the school would benefit. I don't mean to get silly with the riposte, but you see what I mean.

Joel Wertheimer replies:

One the one hand, I am inclined to agree with Brad Rourke that the broader a notion of "active" citizenship, the better. After all, isn't getting kids involved a good thing in and of itself? On the other hand (I always like to keep two hands around just for these kind of dilemmas), his comments imply a kind of value-neutrality to active citizenship that, left unchecked, could be troublesome.

It's true, when I talk about "justice-oriented" citizenship, I mean an orientation to social justice, but since those words are fairly meaningless these days, let me be clear: by justice-oriented citizenship I mean a conception of the democratic citizen as one who works with others to help improve society; it is a conception consistent with Vincent Harding's vision of a democracy that involves constantly "participating in the creation of something new and better than what had existed previously." This requires the ability to analyze root causes of troubles in society. So I see two dilemmas here.

First, when it comes to education for a democratic society, I don't believe all forms of activism are equal no matter the ideological orientation. Some forms of activism, in fact, are downright antithetical to the idea of democracy. Indeed, faith-based civic education (as Mr. Rourke suggests is one possible orientation) has the potential to be one such form. I am all for religious organizations encouraging members to participate in community affairs, but what happens when the beliefs of that organization go against the free exchange of ideas that are essential to democracy? The multitude of fundamentalist groups that organize to keep all sorts of books out of school libraries are active--no one could argue that they are not--but the ends to which they are organizing run counter to the democratic ideal of free exchange of ideas.

Second, too often when educators have focused on merely "being active" and on avoiding particular ideologies by remaining "neutral" regardless of the ideological orientation of that activism, they have instead paved the way for a kind of education that serves the interests of--for lack of a better way to phrase it--those with power. In short, because the media and the broader culture disproportionately reflect particular interests and perspectives and obscure others, there is no level playing field on which students can engage controversial issues. Educators must therefore help students consider the interests and power relations embedded in various perspectives--a formidable task, and one associated with (social) justice-oriented civic education. It is this constant analysis and re-analysis of power relations that, I believe, is the engine of progress in democratic societies.

Helping students learn to think about and pursue social change does not, however, require that they be taught to adopt particular perspectives on particular policy issues, only that they learn how to engage these issues critically.

In sum, I agree with Mr. Rourke that having students be active is, generally speaking, a good thing. But I don't think any and all orientations will have beneficial effects on schools. There are "activist" orientations that, in my mind, are sure to have deleterious effects on democracy: for example, a school-based civic education program that teaches students that the only legitimate explanation for poverty is that mom and dad are not working hard enough sends a message to students that deep analysis of social problems is unnecessary and counterproductive and that compassion may be misguided. It sends the message that the best we can do for democracy is stand back and let the free market work its magic. I think we can do better. I think democracy depends on it.

Tuesday, Oct. 7

Today was a day for thinking about civic education from several different angles. I participated in a Steering Committee meeting of the National Alliance for Civic Education; reviewed research grant proposals submitted to CIRCLE (on aspects of youth civic engagement); and worked on my own application to the National Endowment for the Humanities. This proposal is due next week, so I'm focusing a lot of my on budgetary and other practical details. (My colleagues and I are applying to replicate our high school students' unusual oral history project in several sites, including Jackson, Mississippi and Miami, Florida. The proposed topic is segregation and desegregation in local school districts, during the period 1954-2004. Students will interview surviving witnesses, think of several alternative strategies that could have been adopted in 1954, and create interactive websites to help community members think about what should have been done. That's not an easy question, since each strategy would involve different risks and tradeoffs.)

Coincidentally, I was recently asked to write an article on the following topic: "Civic involvement and democracy in the scholarly communication commons." I proposed this tentative abstract, inspired by the history work:

There are many projects underway that help non-scholars to create sophisticated intellectual products for free dissemination on the Web. Some of these projects enlist disadvantaged adolescents, a group that's particularly distant from traditional, professional researchers. So far, there are neither aggregate poll data nor experimental results that would help us to measure the effects of such projects on the participants or their target audiences. However, those of us who are working in this area hope for several benefits. Participants should gain civic skills and values as a result of creating public goods. They should also gain academic and technical skills and interest in attending college. They should develop an understanding of the digital commons and thereby enlarge the political constituency for policies that protect the commons. Meanwhile, communities should gain from the materials generated by diverse new groups; and powerful research universities should benefit from new opportunities to collaborate with students in their vicinity. As a result, it should be possible to persuade universities to use some of their research resources for projects that would increase youth civic engagement.

Thursday, Oct. 2

I'm at the bucolic Airlie House retreat center in Northern Virginia, with a bunch of people who are trying to organize a lobbying/advocacy campaign to implement the recommendations of the Civic Mission of Schools report. My organization, CIRCLE, doesn't do advocacy. We are a research center with a commitment to intellectual independence and to supporting a diversity of views. However, we didn't want to issue a report and then see it sit on a shelf somewhere. Thus we helped to convene a group of practitioners who might organize themselves for advocacy. I believe they are making good progress.

After dinner, we heard from Leslie Harris, a public interest lawyer and brilliant organizer of advocacy coalitions, including the movement to pass the "E-Rate" provision (which pays to wire schools and libraries). I had suggested that she speak to the group of civic educators, because several years ago I observed her skillful work in organizing a coalition of media reform organizations. This coalition later mobilized mass opposition to the FCC's media consolidation regulations. Tonight, she challenged leaders in civic education to develop "one big idea" that can motivate a coherent campaign. She also challenged the field the include youth in the development of its policy agenda.

Tuesday, Sept. 23

Some people who talk or write about civic education insist that the United States has the very best democracy (or society) in the world. In my opinion, the US is one of about a few dozen polities that stand head-and-shoulders above the rest (due to good luck as well as wise ancestors). I think it's a goal of civic education to help students understand how much more fortunate they are compared to people who live in tyrannies or anarchy. Also, I feel loyalty and gratitude toward the United States and not toward any other nation, and I think this is a good attitude for Americans to hold. However, it's far from clear to me that our polity is the single best in the world. We have low voter participation; our crime and incarceration rates are amazingly high; and we live shorter lives with more disease, compared to people in some of the northern European nations. Nor do we compare favorably with these countries if one thinks about the long term. Sweden, for example, has been stable and at peace for 200 years, progressing steadily toward liberty and democracy. These other democratic states are all to our left politically. Thus I wonder whether some people want to teach students that the United States is the best society in order to head off discussions about whether we should move somewhat leftward.

Monday, Sept. 29

The most passionately debated question in civic education is how to present the overall story of American history in schools. Is it a march toward freedom and democracy, a blood-soaked tale of oppression, or something in between? I can see three ways to address this question:

1. By trying to tell the truth. Some historical statements are verifiable (or falsifiable); and we should only tell students the ones that aren't false. However, the issue here is not whether a given fact is true; it's which facts we ought to mention and emphasize. History is a vast grab-bag (as Robert Weibe once said, in my hearing); and one can choose which items to pull out. As for grand assessments of the overall meaning of American history: they aren't precise enough to be either true or false.

2. By conducting a normative (moral) debate. How to present American history is hotly debated because each approach seems to cohere best with a different moral/ideological worldview. Modern conservatives want to emphasize the degree to which our founding institutions have served us well; some liberals want to stress the March of Progress; and many modern leftists want to focus on violence, exclusion, and resistance. There is nothing wrong with having this debate. However, "is" never implies "ought." One could, for example, take a very dark view of the American past and still believe that students should love their country and its founding documents. Many complex combinations of facts and values are possible.

More importantly, "ought" never implies "is." It is intellectually dishonest to adopt a normative position and then try to teach students a set of historical facts that support that ideology, presented as the history of the United States. If I wanted to help students think about moral and ideological positions, I wouldn't proceed by trying to present a brief version of American history to them. I would teach them explicitly about conflicting values and methods of normative argument.

3. By predicting the effects of each version of history on students' attitudes and beliefs. Many ideologists in this debate assume that particular versions of history will have particular consequences for students' psychological development. For instance, a "triumphalist" narrative will create patriots—or will alienate students, especially minorities. An emphasis on exclusion and oppression will create social activists—or will breed despair.

There is not nearly enough research on this (empirical) topic. William Damon of Stanford argues that young people must develop a positive view of their nation before they can care enough about it to become engaged critics. This theory rings true in my own life. I was a jingoistic patriot at 10, only to become a critical activist by 20. However, I'm not sure that trying to impart a strongly positive view of the Founders would work as well with young people of color as it did with me. In any case, I would love to see more research this field, using as many relevant methodologies as possible.

Tuesday, Sept. 16

I spoke this morning at the 50th anniversary of the National Conference on Citizenship. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) spoke later, as did John Bridgeland, Executive Director of USA Freedom Corps and advisor to President Bush. After Mr. Bridgeland spoke, someone in the audience rose to say that he had just seen a car blatantly stolen outside the hotel, and no one (except himself) had done anything to try to stop it. His implication: We need to teach young people good values, just like in the good old days. The standard politician would take the bait and say that morals have declined, it's a terrible thing, but this administration is committed to character education. John Bridgeland, however, is a thoughtful and sophisticated guy, and he immediately recalled the game-theoretical explanation of cases like this. For each person who witnesses the crime, the worst outcome is that no one does anything to stop it. But the second-worst outcome for each person is that he or she is the one who intervenes. Chart the situation on a game-theorist's grid, and you'll see that no one is likely to do anything. Mr. Bridgeland revealed that he was thinking about game theory when he called the situation outside the hotel a "chicken game." I found it appealing that he gave an answer that was interesting, probably true, and that didn't score him any political points. (By the way, chicken games offer the most useful advice ever generated by game theory. If you need immediate assistance, don't shout "help," to a crowd. Pick an individual arbitrarily and say, "You, please help me.")

Friday, Sept. 12

Yesterday, I reported on the progress of HR 1078, the bill written by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) that would fund summer programs for civics teachers. Gun Owners of America opposes the bill on the amazing grounds that it is "anti-gun." They are asking their members to send the following form letter to Congress:

Dear Representative ________________,

If H.R. 1078 is enacted, educators will be encouraged to teach that I do not have an individual right to keep and bear arms. It will establish Presidential Academies on teaching civics and history which will use anti-gun texts like We the People -- the textbook that conforms to the federal guidelines on teaching civics and history.

This book encourages students to start questioning the wisdom of the Second Amendment, asking the student whether the right to keep and bear arms is still as "important today" as it was in the eighteenth century and to decide what "limitations" should be placed on the right. This kind of discussion treats the Second Amendment as though it were not protecting a God-given, individual right.

But the individual rights view is exactly what our Founders intended and what the American public still believes today. An ABC News Poll in 2002 found that almost three-fourths of all Americans believe that the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the rights of "individuals" to own guns.

We already have too much Federal involvement in education, and the results have not been good. As control over education becomes more and more federalized, it seems that the ideas which children are learning become more and more radical. Please vote against H.R. 1078, a bill which is decidedly anti-gun.

The We the People curriculum and textbook are widely supported by conservatives (as well as liberals) because they provide rigorous and balanced materials on American institutions. This letter reflects a fear of open and balanced discussion that should be deeply embarrassing to all proponents of the Second Amendment and of freedom. I would hope that some would come to the defense of We the People.

PS. The Maple River Education Coalition says that HR 1078 "is in clear violation of the 10th amendment to the U.S. Constitution." (This is a bill, remember, that provides very modest federal support for voluntary summer classes for teachers. It's also a bill that invites students to read and debate the 10th Amendment, which might cause some to gain appreciation for states' rights.)

Thursday, Sept. 11

Some time ago, the Senate passed The American History and Civics Education Act of 2003, which I've summarized here. Identical legislation has now been introduced in the House as H.R. 1078. The House leadership apparently regards this legislation as well-intentioned, bipartisan, Mom-and-apple-pie stuff, and they would like to get it out of the House as quickly as possible. They don't want to take time for hearings and amendments, because they face battles over appropriations, Iraq, and health care this fall. They intend to put the bill on the "Suspension Calendar," which permits no amendments and requires a 2/3 vote to pass (thus requiring Democratic support).

Unfortunately, many people in the civic education business believe that the bill requires changes. Some think that it would do very little practical good, that it is not an efficient use of federal resources, and that it is best seen as a vehicle for more ambitious (but still bipartisan) civics legislation. There is also a possibility that it would be funded at the expense of other history programs in the National Endownment for the Humanities. Thus it would clearly be a good idea to hold hearings and allow amendments in the House. In order to pass the bill without changes, the leadership will need broad Democratic support to waive procedural rules. I might support the bill if forced to vote up or down on it, but I do not think it is a good idea to bypass hearings.

Friday, August 29

Here are some thoughts prompted by Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong?, a new report from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation (edited by James Leming, Lucien Ellington and Kathleen Porter and with an introduction by Chester E. Finn, Jr.). This is a conservative alternative to The Civic Mission of Schools, the joint CIRCLE/Carnegie Corporation report on social studies and civic education released earlier this year.

The rhetoric of the Fordham Foundation report is angry. Chester Finn says that “the lunatics have taken over the asylum”; that the response of the “education establishment” to Sept. 11 was “despicable”; that the “keys of Rome are being turned over to the Goths and Huns.” However, I think it’s worth looking beyond these fighting words to the content of the report, which differs interestingly (but not completely) from the content of The Civic Mission of Schools.

The Civic Mission of Schools identifies a set of facts, behaviors, and attitudes that students should obtain by 12th grade. It then lists six approaches that seem to produce those outcomes. The main evidence consists of aggregate statistics comparing students who have experienced the recommended approaches with those who have not. Only one of the approaches is formal instruction in history, government, and civics. The Civic Mission does not go into great detail about what content should be taught in social studies classes, although it does stress the importance of factual knowledge and the need to connect it to concrete actions. The Report calls for more research on pedagogy and content.

In contrast, Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong? is almost entirely concerned with what teachers are telling students in formal history and government classes. Young people are repeatedly described as woefully ignorant, and the blame is ascribed to pedagogical methods and content selection in formal classes.

The authors focus on content and pedagogy for two reasons. First, they believe that what teachers say matters a great deal. Mark C. Schug contributes a chapter endorsing “teacher-centered instruction” as the most effective pedagogy. Perhaps the authors do not think that the other approaches have much effect at all. James S. Lemming argues that discussion of controversial issues is developmentally inappropriate for k-12 students, which is why many do not participate and those who do talk don’t really deliberate (p. 138). Several contributors disparage service-learning. There is no mention whatsoever of extracurricular activities or student participation in school governance.

Secondly, the authors’ emphasize content and pedagogy because of their extreme dismay at some of the things that they believe students are being told in formal classes. “Why is social studies in such deep trouble? The contributors believe one reason is the dominant belief systems of the social studies education professoriate who train future teachers. [Thus] in this book we exclusively focus upon, to use E.D. Hirsch’s phrase, the ‘thought world’ of social studies leaders’” (pp. i-ii). In practice, this means that the authors quote textbooks on pedagogy; textbooks used in k-12 classes; and statements of official groups such as the NEA, NCATE, and NCSS. These quotations are supposed to prove that education professors and other experts favor relativism, skepticism about all forms of truth, anti-Americanism, and other objectionable doctrines. Education schools turn out teachers with little knowledge and poor values; teachers impart what they were told to their students; and students score badly on tests such as the NAEP Civics Assessment. “Garbage In, Garbage Out” is the title of chapter 6 and the theme of the whole volume.

Empirically, there are two weaknesses to this argument. First, I am not at all convinced that the depiction of education experts (through selective quotations) is fair or complete. For instance, no author mentions Magruder’s American Government, which claims an outright majority of the high school market. Unlike the textbooks that the authors do quote, Magruder’s is quite congenial to their views, so it would rhetorically inconvenient to mention it.

An example of pretty tendentious criticism is Jonathan Burack’s reading of The La Pietra Report (by Thomas Bender and other historians). He quotes a passage about the dangers of nationalism that he calls “unobjectionable” in itself (p. 46). But, he says, “the problems the La Pietra project claims to address do not appear to be all that significant. This suggests that other agendas may be at work. On the matter of American exceptionalism, for instance, is the aim to temper uncritical pro-American bias, or is it to instill indifference to any patriotic appeal at all, no matter how well founded?” The answer is probably the former. In any case, one could easily apply Burack’s interpretive methods to his own article. One would quote selectively, argue that the problems he addresses are “not all that significant,” and darkly allege that “other agendas may be at work.”

Second, there is not much about what teachers say and do in their classrooms. Schug thinks that real teachers (those who survive their first-year of hazing by students) ignore what they were taught in education schools (p. 101). Ellington and Eaton cite evidence that teachers are considerably more conservative than education professors (p. 72). Burack thinks that the relativism preached by education experts may be “triggering an understandable, if in some cases equally mindless, reaction against it” (p. 41). Nevertheless, most contributors assume that education professors are causally responsible for poor student outcomes. If teachers pay little attention to their professors, then this cannot be true.

Each contributor to Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong?” ends with recommendations, but I think they can be roughly summarized as follows: History is the core subject matter. Teachers are responsible for teaching it, and there are limits to student-centered, experiential approaches. American history should be taught “warts-and-all,” but most current textbooks are far too critical about American institutions. (Several authors emphasize that the United States is the single best polity in history; see, for instance, p. 27.) The scope and sequence of social studies education is misconceived, because students do not have to start with their own neighborhoods and work outward (p. 115). Learning about heroes and struggles from the past is inspiring at any age. Teachers must be careful not to try to reform society through social studies education, but they should impart rigorous knowledge of the past.

On his website, Finn gave The Civic Mission of Schools a “C+.” Given his explanation of poor student outcomes (he blames groups like the NEA and NCSS), it would have been awkward for him to give the report an “A.” But he couldn’t give it an “F,” either, because there are too many points of common ground. In particular:

• There is not a whiff of relativism in the Civic Mission of Schools, which emphasizes the importance of factual knowledge and “moral and civic virtues.” We do say that “competent and responsible citizens” are “tolerant of ambiguity and resist simplistic answers to complex questions”; but this does not imply skepticism or relativism. Diane Ravitch says something quite similar: “teachers and textbooks [must] recognize the possibility of fallibility and uncertainty” (p. 5).
• Finn thinks that one problem with social studies is the emphasis on testing in reading, writing, and math. He argues that “what gets tested is what gets taught,” and therefore “NCLB is beginning to have deleterious effects” on civics. This is also a theme in the Civic Mission.
• J. Martin Rochester cites the same evidence of student disengagement that we cite (e.g., declining turnout), and endorses Kids Voting because of its thoughtful combination of knowledge and experience (p. 28).
• I personally share Burack’s criticism of superficial multiculturalism that doesn’t go into depth on any culture or ever address the negative aspects of cultures other than our own (p. 50).

In short, the two reports are not worlds apart, although there are significant differences, and several contributors to the Fordham report bitterly criticize the very groups that signed the Civic Mission.

Monday, July 21

This is from the National Coalition for History (NCH) Washington update:

We now have some additional information and some troubling news ... The Senate appropriations committee recommends a program increase of $15 million specifically for the President Bush's "We the People" initiative [to promote the teaching of history and civics in schools]. While at first the increase might appear to be a cause for celebration, the committee failed to embrace the administration's recommendation of $25 million and it made it clear that it wants the final design of the NEH's "We the People" initiative to reflect "congressional priorities" -- meaning pending legislation (S. 504) sponsored by Senator Lamar Alexander -- the "American History and Civics Education Act of 2003" -- that recently passed the Senate 90-0 and is currently pending in the House.

For what little it's worth, I have endorsed the Alexander bill, which would mainly create summer academies for teachers and students. However, it would be troubling if the necessary money came straight out of the NEH budget.

According to the NCH, some in the "history community ... point out that the Alexander bill is heavily loaded with what is characterized as 'value-laden concepts,' thus raising concerns about "the politicization of the teaching of history." The ideal of value-free history is dubious, for both epistemological and moral reasons. However, I can see the historians' point that it is dangerous for Congress to mandate particular values in the teaching of history. At least, this should be done carefully and with public debate. I also think that there is a difference between "civics" (which ought to be heavily value-laden) and history (which needs to be more "objective"). This difference makes it problematic to lump history and civics together in the same federal program with the same authorizing language.

Wednesday, July 2

As I've noted before, people in the civic education world are now seriously discussing a national campaign to revive "civic ed" in schools. But there are interesting debates about strategy. It seems to me that people variously believe:

1) All the action is at the state level, where standards, assessment methods, and textbooks are chosen. So we have to intervene there, and right away. Any federal legislation that actually passes will be small potatoes.
2) A new campaign should focus at the federal level, since others are advocating in the states. Federal legislation is significant because it can generate national interest and leverage resources, and it needs to be good.
3) We need a public relations campaign to get people concerned about civic education and to raise the public salience of the issue.
4) Public relations is irrelevant, because policymakers are going to make decisions about standards and assessment too soon to be influenced by popular opinion. Besides, it would be far too expensive to raise public concern sufficiently.
5) We need to develop grassroots-level campaigns in favor of civic education, involving various local stakeholders and young people themselves.
6) We should tailor messages for select decision-makers, especially officials in state departments of education, stressing ways that they can improve civics without huge financial costs and without risking lower test scores in reading, writing, and math.

I have views on these matters (leaning toward 1 and 4, and 5 and/or 6), but I'm by no means sure that I'm right.

Thursday, June 26

I'm one of about 200 people—mostly corporate executives—who signed an open letter to President Bush that's printed as a full-page ad in today's New York Times. It reads, in part: "AmeriCorps programs are closing. Young people who want to serve their country are being turned away. Communities, schools and children are losing their AmeriCorps mentors, tutors, teachers and builders . . . Please save these essential AmeriCorps programs that have done so much good for our communities." (I can't find a link to the Times ad, but the Washington Post has a story about it.)

Monday, June 23

Last Friday, the Senate passed, by a 90-0 vote, the "American History and Civics Education Act” (S. 504), that had been introduced by Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN). The bill would create summer institutes for k-12 teachers in college settings, where they would study civics and history. It would give some high school juniors and seniors the opportunity to attend a different set of summer academies; and it would organize a National Alliance of Teachers of History and Civics, for the sharing of information and ideas.

Senator Alexander said, “Civics is being dropped from many school curricula. More than half the states have no requirement for a course in American government. And American history has been watered down, textbooks are dull, and their pages feature victims and diminish heroes. Because of politically correct attitudes from the left and right, teachers are afraid to teach the great controversies and struggles that are the essence of American history.”

I heartily agree and think that Alexander's points can be substantiated with solid evidence. Partly as a result of the way we teach (or fail to teach) civics, the actual participation of young people in politics and civic life is dropping, and the least advantaged are the most often left out.

Many people in the "civic-ed" world are now calling for a movement to revese these trends, using the Civic Mission of Schools report as the blueprint. This movement or campaign would have to address fundamental problems that go well beyond what Senator Alexander mentioned. Above all, social studies are being squeezed out of the curriculum, especially in grades 1-8, because of budget cuts and an emphasis on testing in reading and math. S. 504 has no direct bearing on these trends. It deals with the in-service education of teachers—a worthy goal, if not a crucial one. But S. 504 could have an indirect positive effect if the participating k-12 teachers and their college instructors become a national network of advocates for civic education. Here's hoping it passes the House and gets adequately funded.

Tuesday, June 17

Standards and testing are hugely important in k-12 education these days. Meanwhile, many people who are interested in improving American democracy would like to make it more "deliberative." In a deliberative democracy, the public would rule on the basis of one person, one vote, but with as much informed discussion as possible before any vote.

Educational standards can be beneficial for deliberative democracy. They are public statements of expectations for students and schools, issued by accountable democratic bodies, and subject to debate. Standards can be good or bad for education (depending on what they contain), but they seem completely compatible with public deliberation and popular sovereignty. Testing, on the other hand, is problematic from this perspective. Tests must be designed by small groups in private. They can't be public documents and still function well as assessments. The designers of tests tend to be specialists, since designing good instruments is a difficult, technical task. Thus experts have considerable power and are held accountable to professional or technical norms, rather than public judgment.

The risk of tests for deliberative democracy is clearest in the case of norm-referenced exams (such as the SAT). To design a norm-referenced test, experts write possible test questions almost randomly and try them out on small samples of students. For the actual test, they retain those trial questions that statistically correlated with past questions asked on the same test (i.e., those questions that the high-scorers tend to answer correctly). This is a strictly technical approach that appears to avoid any judgments about what is important to learn. But of course such judgments are made implicitly, since any test must assess some skills or bodies of knowledge and not others. As a result, exams like the SAT have powerful social effects, yet the public doesn't control, and cannot even debate, their content.

Such tests are bad for public deliberation. Standards are potentially good. The problem is that we often don't know how to enforce standards without tests, and unenforceable standards are not good for either education or democracy.

Friday, May 30

I'm still at the Education Commission of the States in Denver, discussing state standards in civics. One distinguished colleague argued that no educational reform really succeeds unless a state has all of the following elements in place: appropriate standards, tests, courses, textbooks, funding, and professional development opportunities. (It can also be useful to have appropriate admissions requirements at the state university.) Unfortunately, all the elements of an effective civics program are missing in most states today. This is a serious matter, for young people are being inadequately prepared to participate in politics in civic life, and consequently many are not involved at all. (We make this general argument in The Civic Mission of Schools report.)

Thursday, May 29

I'm in Denver, at the Education Commission of the States, talking about state standards in civics and social studies. The topic is what students should know, think, feel, and do about politics and civil society. The group is very well informed and represents all the relevant disciplines and professions. So far, there have been few (if any) broad and systematic disagreements. Most experts feel some tension about standards, accountability, and testing. They ask themselves: are these things inherently harmful, since they reduce schools' capacity to operate democratically, or do we need good standards and tests to encourage civics? There was also a very interesting discussion that pitted academics (including me) against a school superintendent of a fairly major school system. The academics worry that schools are suppressing discussion of controversial political issues. The superintendent told horror stories about teachers who proselytize for various fringe political causes. I certainly could see his point about the risks—both moral and political—of encouraging teachers to bring politics into the classroom. On the other hand, if we prevent teachers from advocating for political causes, then there is a risk that students will never meet any adults who are politically active and articulate.

Thursday, May 1

Today was the White House Forum on American History, Civics, and Service, a big event in my field. Our Civic Mission of Schools report was distributed to all 250 of the White House's guests and received a lot of attention.

The Forum exemplified official Washington. The President delivered an especially prepared greeting from a gigantic video screen. Much was made of his new initiative to support history teaching. The First Lady and Lynne Cheney, guarded visibly by the Secret Service, made speeches; and everyone stood each time one of these women took the podium. (Some of the sanctity of high executive office transfers to spouses, apparently.) Patriotic video montages of American history were displayed on the screen. A huge reproduction of a manuscript copy of the Constitution was the backdrop all day. Teenagers were paraded (silently) on stage and bedecked with medals—quite literally. Speakers were introduced with long recitals of their achievements; there was also much thanks to funders and assembled dignataries. Almost all the speakers quoted at least one framer of the Constitution (often deploying little-known and highly relevant quotes—to their credit). Martin Luther King Jr. was also cited widely; and many sentimental stories were told about disadvantaged children. No one mentioned the name of a political party or a major ideology, lest the spirit of nonpartisanship be disturbed. There was general air of congratulation, directed at the people and organizations in the room and at America itself—with one exception: at least half the speakers wagged their fingers at young Americans today for their shocking ignorance of history.

My academic training makes me want to rebel against this kind of show. I want to ask: What do we know about the trends in historical knowledge over time? What do we know about the factors that make historical education successful? What is the impact of a historical education, or of historical knowledge, on people over their lifetimes? What will the impact of the new presidential initiative be? (At $100 million over three years, it represents a vanishingly small commitment in the context of the federal budget.) Since there are competing grand narratives of American history, how do we know which one is more correct? Is Howard Zinn's story of greed and violence (which was explicitly criticized during the session) false? Is it less valid than the "moderate triumphalist" narrative that one speaker recommended as an alternative? What are the effects of such stories on youth development?

Notwithstanding all these questions and doubts, I recognize that public institutions are not academic seminars. Mutual praise is oil that probably has to be poured periodically over civil society. Vague statements of commitment from the President of the United States are not empty; they are useful ammunition in struggles at the local level. And leaders are entitled to make a big deal about $100 million programs that they have proposed. You would have to be a kind of political puritan to expect them not to capitalize on the symbolism of such initiatives. It doesn't only take truth and critical debate to make large institutions run; they also need symbolism, ritual, and even etiquette. Washington does these things well.

Tuesday, April 29

I spoke today at the Cesar Chavez Public Charter School for Public Policy, which is a wonderful school that I have visited before. It's a crowded warren of rooms on an upstairs floor of a former industrial building, where kids are intensely involved in regular classes, public-service internships, and the study of public policy. If we are going to have broad-based, creative, informed leadership in the District of Columbia (and other troubled cities), then experiments like Chavez must work. It seems quite clear that the school is successful at present—one hundred percent of its graduates attend college, and all seem inspired to work on social problems. There are, however, the usual questions about whether the Chavez model is replicable, or whether it depends on remarkably charismatic and dedicated leadership.

Monday, April 28

I was interviewed over the weekend by a group called Civic Honors. The interview is posted here. It was an opportunity to say why I personally believe in civic engagement. I said:

My philosophical position would be something like this: (1) Volunteerism is an inadequate form of civic engagement, because it replaces political action with service, which does not address the root cause of problems or tap the political capacities of the volunteers. (2) Civic engagement should be cultivated for two reasons. First, if we don't deliberately teach it, the least advantaged among us will be the first to disengage, leading to political inequality later on. Second, civic participation is a good human activity. It is not the only or highest good activity: theoretical reflection, spiritual contemplation, appreciation of nature, creation of art, and care for family members are some of the other activities that are inherently good. All of these ends or projects are preferable to the forms of life that are more frequently advertised to young people: consumerism, athletics, and sexual gratification. Moreover, in public schools, we cannot teach activities connected to spirituality or care for family. Therefore, we ought to teach civic engagement (along with art and science) so that it is an option available to young people.

Tuesday, March 4

The Civic Mission of Schools, our report on civic education, has been getting quite a lot of press—most of it positive. But Chester Finn wrote a critical review that has been provoking some discussion in the civic engagement world. ...

Monday, February 17

Today, President's Day, was supposed to be the White House Forum on American History, Civics, and Service. We were excited, because we had just launched our report on The Civic Mission of Schools; John Bridgeland had formally praised it on behalf of the administration; and it was to be distributed at the Forum. But with Washington buried under perhaps the biggest snowfall in its recorded history, the Forum was cancelled. I am, however, delighted to link to a Sunday article by David Broder that not only endorses The Civic Mission of Schools; it also deftly and accurately summarizes it. And today's Washington Post has a masthead editorial endorsing the report. (Unfortunately, the Post was hardly delivered to anyone today, since side streets were impassable.)

Thursday, February 13

Today was finally the big release of The Civic Mission of Schools. (I can finally link to the text of this report, which had been embargoed until today.) John Bridgeland, Advisor to the President and Director of USA Freedom Corps, made a very nice speech in formally "receiving" it for the press. About 150 people were present for the lunch/launch, including Vartan Gregorian, who spoke eloquently, and many authors and endorsers (and friends in the civic engagement world). I thought it went very well—at any rate, I'm relieved that it's done.

Friday, January 31

I've been writing my proposal for an innovative high school civics textbook. I'm tentatively calling it Civics for Citizens. Unlike any competing text, it will combine challenging academic content with exercises and materials designed to help students experience civic life through discussions and community service. Furthermore, in the part devoted to academic instruction, Civics for Citizens will present an unusual selection of topics. Many high school civics and government texts contain difficult and detailed information about the structure and process of government, but they never introduce students to basic concepts from social theory, philosophy, and economics—terms such as "externality," "utilitarianism," and "free rider." Yet these are the most influential ideas in policy debates among researchers, regulators, and legislators. If young citizens never learn these ideas, then they cannot participate in (or even follow) crucial debates and must leave the outcomes to elites.

Consider the concept of an "externality," which seems at first glance to be too technical for a civics class. Sometimes, a voluntary exchange among free individuals creates harms for others who did not agree to the deal. For instance, companies produce goods that their customers willingly buy, but they also generate pollution that affects everyone. This is an example of an externality. If you think that externalities are serious problems, then you may want the government to interfere to mitigate the damage. On the other hand, if you think that externalities are mostly not serious problems—or that the burdens of regulation are worse—then you may want less government interference. The debate about how much the government should regulate is perhaps the central political argument in modern times, and it rests on conflicting ideas about externalities. As you go through life, your personal experiences and your understanding of current events may help you to decide what you think about externalities and regulations. But first you need to understand the underlying concepts.

Monday, January 27

I'm working ineffectively on lots of separate projects, including trying to fix the NACE Website so that it works for older Web browsers. In between things, I've been writing a proposal for a new kind of high school civics textbook. If I ever found a publisher interested in it, I'd have to shelve a lot of other writing projects, but it would be worthwhile.

The leading texts for high school government classes are basically political science primers written at the tenth- or twelfth-grade level. They describe the mechanics of the federal government as if from a distance, without explaining how an ordinary citizen can play important roles in community affairs, without addressing complex ethical and moral questions; without helping students to reason about contemporary issues, and without describing civic and political institutions other than the federal government (which is remote from students' lives).

Because textbooks deal mainly with the structure of the national government, government classes have little connection to students' direct experience of civic and political issues, which they gain through community service, membership in groups outside the school, and extracurricular participation. Meanwhile, students' practical experiences are largely separate from their academic work, despite evidence that community service best encourages civic development when it is combined with learning in the classroom.

In short, there is a profound need for a textbook that combines analysis of political institutions; guidance about how to think about complex public issues at all levels from the school to the world; a thorough and challenging treatment of ethics; and practical instructions for meaningful community service projects.

Thursday, January 9

The big thing that is going on at CIRCLE is our soon-to-be completed joint report with the Carnegie Corporation, entitled "The Civic Mission of Schools." We worked all fall to hold meetings and email discussions for about 55 people who are contributors to, and potential endorsers of, the report. The final draft is now with these people for their last comments, and they are to decide whether to endorse. Monday is the deadline. Some participants want changes; the big debate is about whether it is necessary to run schools in a more democratic manner. For some of our participants, this is the key to reform. For others, it is risky and unsupported by research evidence. We are working to develop compromise language that is meaningful advice to schools. I remain confident that we will have a solid report with 50 signatories. (Meanwhile, I'm spending a lot of my time on practical details like layout, copy-editing, scheduling the launch, etc.)