A Real Need for Civic Education

I am not sure if it because we are in Asia and have closer ties in many ways to the Arab Spring. But there is definitely a movement that is making waves, however subtly across the southern hemisphere. As I discuss with my colleagues about the situation in Singapore, as a nation, we are asking questions that ten years ago, we would not dare to ask. Even the old guards, who have been ‘invited’ into retirement, have began to write and publish articles that they never did during their time in the government.

I find that many of these questions we are asking and many of the strategies that we are attempting to develop, do not have answers and there are no prior models that we can look at or modify. Political science does not seem to be able to provide the necessary theoretical or practical support in this movement. I think right now, for Singapore, as we see a government that is struggling to understand a new age and a people of that age, it is the people that have stepped forward: and yet, a study of that does not quintessentially fall under political science or sociology. As I turn back to my notes from the Summer Institute of Civics Studies, I find they do provide me, at least with a theoretical grounding of how civic society and engagement in Singapore can move forward.

The movement is from the ground, from the people, yet it departs from communism or socialism, simply because it is not a course of action decided by a politically governmental body and this ‘people power’ from the ground is attempting to exist across different political systems and structures. Even within China, where once, NGOs were banned, civic societies are growing in number. There is no science currently that seems able to capture the study of this rise in the power of civic engagement.

As an educator, I also find that students need to understand and be a part of this rise in civic power, if I might call it that. Hence, to me, civic studies needs to be a field in itself, because it seems, the world is demanding it, and the traditional fields of political science and sociology cannot contain it anymore. The movement is merely being documented, but there is no theoretical framework in which it can be understood, studied and applied.

I had just returned from Cambodia, where I was conducting a training programme in Negotiations. It was a part of an Initiative for Asean Integration (IAI) programme, where the different Asean countries offer consultancy, training and exchange programmes in areas of national excellence. At the closing, as the feedback came in, there were requests for more programmes on other areas. I found that if I were to see Civic Studies as a field in itself, it is utterly possible to explain the changes in a country and what the people can do about it. It is definitely interdisciplinary and cuts across political systems and is a study of people engaged in their society. Across the world, in the 21st century, it seems that free individuals and emancipated organisations are changing their societies and the world. And it is not about politics.

So my question is not, do we need it, but I want to know how do we start, and where do we start.


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The Youth Build Movement – Service as Public Work

Today the language of "service" and "love" often cloaks other purposes. After 9/11 George Bush contrasted "a nation awakened to service and citizenship and compassion" with the axis of evil. "We value life," he declared. "The terrorists ruthlessly destroy it." He called on Americans to "become September 11th volunteers by making a commitment to service in our neighborhoods."

One wonders what assembled world leaders made of Pope Francis' pledge, at his installation on March 20, to "serve the poorest, the weakest, the least important" -- and his challenge to them to do likewise.

YouthBuild USA contrasts starkly with sentimental or cynical invocations of service. It uses unabashedly affective terms like "love" to describe its highly effective philosophy of working with low-income and minority young people for their educational and civic growth and development.

Key to YouthBuild's success is that it joins a philosophy of deep affection with equally deep belief in young people's potential for what we at the Center for Democracy and Citizenship call public work. It promotes "world-building," to use a related term of the late political theorist Hannah Arendt.

YouthBuild describes itself as a "movement to unleash the positive energy of low-income young people to rebuild their communities and their lives." It began in 1978 when Dorothy Stoneman asked East Harlem teenagers, "How would you improve your community if you had adult support?" "We'd rebuild the houses," they replied. "We'd take empty buildings back from the drug dealers and eliminate crime."

Together they and Stoneman created the first YouthBuild program -- still operating -- and renovated the first YouthBuild building. Stoneman and Leroy Looper founded YouthBuild USA in 1990 to scale up YouthBuild as a proven way to "break the cycle of poverty."

With a federal YouthBuild program which has bipartisan support, operated by the Department of Labor, YouthBuild has spread widely. There are now 273 YouthBuild programs in the nation. Since 1994, more than 100,000 YouthBuild participants have built more than 20,000 units of affordable, increasingly green housing.

In YouthBuild low-income young people work toward the GEDs or high school diplomas while learning job skills. They participate in leadership development, help govern local programs, and engage in service activities and political advocacy in support of YouthBuild. A recent innovation is the YouthBuild post-secondary initiative which helps YouthBuild members to make transitions to college.

Evaluations show YouthBuild has remarkable impact in education, workforce preparation, crime prevention, leadership development and poverty reduction. YouthBuild programs lower recidivism rates for court involved youth by 40 percent. More than half of the enrollees get on track for education and employment. A study by CIRCLE researchers, Pathways into Leadership: A Study of YouthBuild Graduates,, found that while young people generally enter YouthBuild for practical reasons -- the desire get a GED or job skills -- it can have huge civic benefits.

Graduates are "exemplary civic leaders," it reports. "A significant number hold public office or are church leaders such as pastors. More than one third are professional educators or youth workers. Almost all are leaders in their families, workplaces, and communities."

Individual stories in the Huffington Post illustrate such changes. "During the time I was not in school, I fell into the subculture of the streets. I felt alienated from, had no sense of responsibility for, and did not care about the deteriorating conditions of my community," writes Lashon Amado. "My initial goals for myself in the program were to gain my GED and then seek a trade." YouthBuild staff challenged his expectations. They saw "potential and intelligence in me that I had been ignoring for most of my life," Amado writes.

"I gained a discipline," he says, "how to wake up early in the morning... how to stay committed to a task. I also developed professional skills, learned about networking, attended workshops on public speaking and leadership development, and [had] my first exposure to the college experience."

Amado now coordinates a YouthBuild leadership effort, Student VOICES, while going to college at UMass Boston.

Patrick Breton, graduate of YoutBuild Brockton, describes the community's "highly motivational and supportive atmosphere. In addition to the caring and committed staff, I was with like-minded peers."

YouthBuild creates what it calls "positive mini-communities of adults and youth committed to each other's success." As Pathways to Leadership observes, these contrast with other experiences. "In general, major institutions, from schools to law enforcement agencies, treat them as threats to themselves and their communities." Such institutions "offer, if anything, a combination of surveillance, remediating, discipline and punishment to try to alter their destructive tendencies." YouthBuild "treats them as potential civic leaders and invests in their leadership skills."

YouthBuild's philosophy is based on what can be called public love, with both personal and public dimensions. Stoneman lists key personal elements including family-like support and appreciation; care for young people's development; and inspiring and caring role models. "When young people walk into YouthBuild, we need to immediately surprise them with the level of respect they receive and the level of caring that each staff person shows. Our job [is] to offer so much respect and love that it awakens our students' capacity to care."

YouthBuild also stresses public elements such as "power for them over their immediate environment"; "firm and loving challenge to stop self-destructive behavior and negative attitudes"; "high standards and expectations"; "understanding of the proud and unique history of their peoples"; and "heightened awareness of the present day world and their important place in it."

Throughout, meaningful work is emphasized. Scott Emerick, YouthBuild's Vice President, describes the importance of "building something real." Participants "expand their thinking and develop habits of mind that transfer to classrooms and to careers."

Dorothy Stoneman adds, "Young people love producing something of value to their neighbors. Just today on Capital Hill, one student said to a legislator, 'It made me feel so good to see the light in the eyes of the homeowner on the day of key presentation. I knew I had done something that made a difference.'"

Stoneman adds, "I have heard variations on the quote hundreds of times."

YouthBuild holds lessons for all of education. Public work, affection, and respect are important for young people of all backgrounds. Moreover, the movement itself has immense potential for growth -- more than 2,000 different organizations have applied to the federal government to bring YouthBuild to their communities. This spring the DOL has capacity to fund only 75.

For an administration interested in innovative, cross-partisan approaches to addressing the nation's problems, championing the expansion of YouthBuild could have large payoffs.

Faculty Voice in College Credit Transfer

A recent piece by Jon Marcus from the Hechinger Report, "Stopping the Clock: Colleges Under Fire Over Transfer Credits That Don't Count," does a great job of drawing attention to a serious problem facing higher education today, especially in the consideration it pays to the insights I have heard from college students during focus groups on the issue. However, my colleagues at Public Agenda and I are troubled by one of the premises of the piece.

While faculty "hubris" and "snobbery" may account for some portion of the problem students face as they seek to transfer credits, it would be a mistake to dismiss faculty concerns in the absence of systematic efforts to improve skillful and thoughtful assessment of learning outcomes.

In nearly every focus group I've conducted with transfer students, some portion of the participants (usually 10-30 percent) tell stories of courses at open-enrollment institutions that should not have been allowed to transfer because they were of such low quality. These students talk about feeling like they're being set up for failure, and one even said to me, "I'm glad that class didn't transfer because I would have definitely failed the next level."

If even 10 percent of community college courses are watered down to the point that transfer students are set up for failure when they seek to continue their education at a more selective (and typically more expensive) institution, then we need to begin having in earnest the conversations about the real tensions between a mission focused on access and one focused on success.

Faculty Face a Multitude of Challenges

Through dozens and dozens of conversations with faculty at community colleges in several states, I've heard their daily struggle to find a way to help catastrophically underprepared students advance to the next level. A majority of these faculty members are adjuncts without a voice in, strong support from or deep ties to their institution.

I've also heard faculty at non-selective four-year institutions describe the "daily compromise" they make as they attempt to balance meeting students where they are while setting expectations to help them get to where they need to be. One memorable faculty member at one of the nation's largest community college systems echoed many others in saying, "I used to teach calculus, but now spend most of my time trying to figure out the best way to teach how to add whole numbers."

The challenges faculty face on the issue of academic transfer go beyond the pressures that come with underprepared students. Transferability of credits across institutions will ultimately depend on the ability of faculty to do something they've never been trained or supported to do before: determine how to effectively assess learning outcomes and then actually do it.

In a focus group last week at a non-selective four-year institution in Ohio, one faculty member brought this challenge into focus when she asked her colleagues at the table, "Do you think part of the problem is our training? I went to a very good Ph.D. program, and I never once heard the word assessment or learning outcomes." For all the training and knowledge that college faculty accrue and possess, they are never formally taught how to be teachers or how to reliably assess what their students should know and be able to do.

It's Time to Change the Conversation

Community colleges and non-selective four-year institutions have hard conversations ahead of them about the relationship between access and success. If simply making it possible for students to enroll is not enough - if institutions have a responsibility to pay attention to who succeeds, who fails and how we know - then it's time for new kinds of conversations that move beyond finger pointing at any one group.

The tendency of experts to caricature faculty as shameless egotists obscures the more serious issues at work, and it ignores the fact that any meaningful and lasting success in higher education reform will require the knowledge, expertise and commitment of faculty.

It's too easy, and even a little lazy, to blame faculty egotism for such a complex and systemic problem, and doing so won't help bring faculty to the table. It's time for the conversation to change so that we can all get down to the real work ahead of us.

Top Grades in High School May Not Mean an Equal Chance at Success

For low-income students—even those with top grades and high test scores—the chance to excel in higher education can be derailed from the get-go, before the ink is even dry on their high school diplomas. For these students, outshining your high school classmates still doesn’t mean you’ll end up at a top college, according to new research from Christopher Avery of Harvard and Caroline Hoxby of Stanford. That makes us wonder about the role high school guidance counselors play in helping low-income students apply to college and whether these students are getting the advice and support they deserve. Based on Public Agenda’s work in this area, it seems very likely the guidance system is coming up short.

According to the new study reported in the New York Times, only about a third of high-achieving high school seniors from low-income families enroll in "one of the country’s 238 most selective colleges." It’s not that these highly promising students aren’t admitted—most never even apply. In sharp contrast, more than three-quarters of high-achieving students from affluent families attend one of these top schools.

And these students would seem to be a college admission officer’s dream. The researchers focused on students with an A-minus average or higher who had scored among the top 10% on college admissions exams like the SAT or ACT.

Like most good research, the Avery-Hoxby study raises a challenging set of questions for educators and the public at large. Experts responding to the report mentioned lack of knowledge about financial aid and lack of role models as some reasons why these top-achieving students from poorer homes don’t attend selective colleges.

Public Agenda’s study, "Can I Get a Little Advice Here? How an Overstretched High School Guidance System Is Undermining Students' College Aspirations spells out some specific problems facing these (and other) students.


Reviving Manufacturing, Saving Energy: Can We Do Both?

Reprinted from The Energy Collective - March 20, 2013

A lot fewer Americans work in factories these days, and that has a major impact on energy intensity. Graphic: Census Bureau

Sometimes the long term trends are the hardest to see, yet also the most significant.

Take energy efficiency, for example. There’s no question that using energy more efficiently is crucial in both meeting the rising global demand and in minimizing climate change. And the good news is that the United States has been on a long trend of becoming more efficient. One of the best measures is “energy intensity,” or the amount of energy needed to produce one dollar of goods and services. As you can see in this chart from the Energy Information Administration, the amount of energy needed to produce a dollar of goods and services has been on a long steady decline since the 1970s.

The long, steady improvement in U.S. energy intensity is expected to continue. Graphic: EIA

On average, American energy intensity has been improving by 2 percent a year for four decades, and it’s projected to continue on that path through 2040. In fact the government’s projections show efficiency improving in every sector: residential, commercial, industrial and transportation.

There are a lot of reasons for that trend: government policy promoting more efficient appliances and cars, greater social awareness, and (sometimes) higher energy prices. It’s no surprise that energy efficiency should improve when prices are high, such as after the OPEC oil embargo of the 1970s or the gasoline price spike in 2008. It’s even more encouraging that the trend continued during periods when energy was relatively cheap.


Delphi Method

This article is a stub. We invite you to flesh it out and make it a complete entry. Definition "The Delphi technique is an alternative participatory method. Although it is based on iteration and feedback, it is less elaborate and resource‐intensive than Deliberative Polling. In addition, unlike Deliberative Polling, the...

MOOCs and Maximin

hook_menu() by nyuhuhuu on Flickr.

hook_menu() by nyuhuhuu on Flickr.

Quick reaction post. If you’re a gamer friend, sorry, this isn’t the “Mooks and Minmaxing” post you’re looking for.

Over on FaceSpace, John Protevi linked to this critique of Thomas Friedman’s breathless support for MOOCs (massively online open courses).

Its main point (TL;DR) is that, in the name of “democratizing” education, the MOOC era is ushering in a new and even-harsher oligarchy on the side of the professorate. This should be totally unsurprising to anyone who’s, like, heard of Marx – MOOCs make education more capital-intensive, which tends to concentrate power more.

All of this is, I think, quite a valid concern. But it struck me that the article buried a perhaps even more important point.

Friedman did mention the online revolution’s potential disadvantages—“Yes,” he conceded, “only a small percentage complete all the work, and even they still tend to be from the middle and upper classes of their societies.”

I don’t think we should move off this point too quickly. I’ll admit to being very torn on the issue of MOOCs. On the one hand, I share many worries about their implementation, but on the other, I am attracted to their potential.

But this strikes me as a phenomenally important issue. Many professors make much of the fact that watching some lectures and taking online quizzes doesn’t replicate the atmosphere of intellectual vibrancy that a well-run face-to-face discussion can provide.  But I think that’s in many ways the pinnacle of the classroom experience, and one that the best of us (me not among them) can only reach inconsistently. It’s a sort of maximax ideal in itself.

A lot of what a human teacher can do is help with the problem that is briefly acknowledged both by Friedman and by the critique: she can help students who struggle with the material find a path to mastery. Poorer Egyptian students who drop out of MOOCs are likely not doing so because they are not as smart as their wealthier colleagues – but they are probably disproportionately burdened with inadequate preparation, busier and more exhausting lives, etc.

Helping weaker students is hard, frustrating, unsexy work that is often not even that highly esteemed by professors – it is very easy for us to look at students who aren’t “getting it” and make snarky jokes about them to our colleagues, and then focus on the keeners. I’m at least as guilty of this as anyone else.

And structurally, many of our schools aren’t set up this way. I have several friends and colleagues who teach at less prestigious schools and do the backbreaking labor of trying their best to help their students succeed. And they are often not honored for it – no one gets famous in Philosophy academe for being the best teacher at Anne Arundel Community College (intentionally not a place where I personally know someone teaching), and your teaching load is likely to interfere with publishing. Without breaking confidentiality or airing dirty laundry, I think I can safely say that whether my state school has a special responsibility to accept weaker students and try to help them succeed is a perennial discussion we have on the admissions committee, on which there has never been consensus.

So my worry is this: very many of us, especially the elites in the profession, are already often helping the powerful rather than the weak, already reinforcing social hierarchy. If we are not practically committed to not just teaching models, but career models (what I do in my classroom is less important than who can sit in it, in many ways) that help those with less social power, we maybe shouldn’t be surprised if we’re cast aside when a more efficient way to reinforce elite advantages comes along.