civics in the very early grades

I’m far from an expert on civics for young children, but I bump into the subject in various capacities–as an author of the College Career and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies, which covers grades k-12; as an evaluator of a pilot civics program in Ukraine, which includes a first-grade curriculum; as a proud board member of Discovering Justice, which focuses more than other nonprofits do on the early grades; and as the director of CIRCLE when we commissioned “Indicators and Measures of Civic Outcomes for Elementary School Students” by Bernadette Chi, JoAnn Jastrzab, and Alan Melchior.

If I’m asked what little kids should learn about civics, this is my working answer. Mostly, they should learn how to relate appropriately to other people: sharing resources fairly, taking turns, resolving conflicts peacefully, and addressing common problems. They should also begin to see that the same issues arise at larger scales and for adults in formal roles. Just as they should they help a classmate who’s crying on the playground, so “neighborhood helpers” like firefighters should help citizens in need. Just as they should resolve disputes with words, so should national leaders. Just as their classroom has rules, so does the society. At some point in the early grades, they should begin to realize that just as kids may fail to treat each other right, so may adults who hold official roles; and when that happens, it requires remedies. These analogies should be represented in the materials, such as historical narratives, that children read and otherwise study academically.

I don’t think we know whether experiencing high-quality civics at age 7 matters at age 17 (or 70). You might expect that it only matters if the experience is reinforced in between, but that’s an empirical question. In 1999, Sir Bernard Crick observed that, “there is no political Piaget,” and longitudinal research on civic development before adolescence is sorely lacking. Thus I base my advice on accumulated classroom experience and theory, not on statistical data.

suing for better civics

(DCA) Robert Pondiscio for the Fordham Institute:

Many of us who view ourselves as civic-education advocates spend lots of time writing earnest op-eds and columns, attending conferences, and speaking on panels … Collectively, we have spilled gallons of ink urging states, school districts, and teachers to return public education to its roots.

Well, to hell with all that jawboning, says Michael Rebell, in effect. He’s going to force the issue by making a federal case out of it. Literally.

An attorney and Columbia professor, Rebell has been quietly working with a group of law school students to prepare a federal lawsuit to be filed next month, arguing that our public schools are not adequately preparing children for citizenship. ….

Before you write this off as a quixotic quest or mere law school exercise, know that Rebell isn’t just some lawyer, or even some professor. In 1993, he led the landmark Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit against the State of New York and won …

I would add that Rebell’s new book, Flunking Democracy: Schools, Courts, and Civic Participation (University of Chicago Press, 2018) is a thoughtful, well-informed, and judicious overview of civics–valuable even if you aren’t interested in the lawsuit. The book also helpfully explains what would happen if the plaintiffs won. They wouldn’t ask courts to set education policy but to require a deliberative process (involving elected officials and others) that would make progress on civics.

take a survey to help develop a strategy for improving civic education in the USA

A coalition called CivXNow is working to expand and improve civic education in the USA. I am on this coalition’s steering committee.

We recently fielded a survey to collect ideas for improving civic education. More than 6,500 people took that survey. A major component was a “Five Whys” exercise, asking why civics is not as good as it should be. If you took the “Five Whys” survey, please complete a second survey now to help refine and organize the results. The format of this second survey is innovative and should be fun.

If you did not take that first survey, we would still welcome your input as we hone the ideas that emerged from it. We have designed a survey for people who didn’t take the first one but still wish to have input. It is online and will take less than 15 minutes to complete. It can be taken on a computer or a smartphone. You can take it by clicking here.

coming soon: Democracy’s Discontent and Civic Learning

Now available for pre-ordering is Charles S. White (ed.), Democracy’s Discontent and Civic Learning: Multiple Perspectives. Chapters include:

  • “The Populist Moment,” by William A. Galston.
  • “Populism, Democracy, and the Education of Citizens,” by Thomas S. Vontz and J. Spencer Clark, (with Stephen L. Schechter).
  • “Are Europe’s Democracies in Danger? A View of the Populist Challenge,” by Karlheinz Duerr.
  • “Confronting a Global Democracy Recession: The Role of United States International Democracy Support Programs,” by Liza Prendergast
  • “Democracy’s Pharmakon: Technology as Remedy and Poison,” by Charles S. White.
  • “Judicial Legitimacy in the Age of Populism,” by Alison Staudinger.
  • “Fulfilling the Promise of Democracy: How Black Lives Matter Can Foster Empowered Civic Engagement,” by Amy J. Samuels and Gregory L. Samuels.
  • “Does P–12 Educational Research Ameliorate or Perpetuate Inequity?” by Jacob S. Bennett.
  • “Democracy’s Discontent and Teacher Education: Countering Populism and Cultivating Democracy,” by Stephanie Schroeder.
  • “A Primer on Trump Economics: Populist or Something Else?” by James E. Davis.
  • “Going for Depth in Civic Education: A Design Experiment,” by Walter C. Parker. With responses:
    • “What Public Philosophy Should We Teach? A Reply to Parker,” by Peter Levine
    • “Fidelity of Implementation: A Reply to Parker,” by James E. Davis
    • “Contrasting Landscapes: A Reply to Parker,” by Karlheinz Duerr

new survey on Americans’ views of democracy

(Salt Lake City, Utah) Freedom House, the George W. Bush Institute, and the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement have released a new national survey on Americans’ attitudes toward democracy.

The headline finding is that Americans value democratic norms–regardless of party–and they worry that those norms are weakening. Almost exactly the same proportion of Democrats and Republicans (63% and 65%) say that it is “absolutely important” to live in a democracy.

But only one in three young adults think it’s “very important” to live in a democracy. The perceived importance of living in a democracy rises steadily and steeply by age. This trend could be generational, in which case democracy is in trouble as we face a century dominated by people who aren’t committed to democracy. Or it could be a life-cycle effect: perhaps people gradually develop more commitment as they grow older.

This graph is an argument for better civics. Almost 90 percent of poll respondents want to “ensure that schools make civic education a bigger part of the curriculum.”

Respondents were asked what is wrong with our democracy today. Youth are much more likely that other groups to point to racism and discrimination. They are somewhat less likely to condemn unreliable media and partisan news. Hardly any youth are concerned about a “breakdown in traditional American values.” But partisan news and a breakdown of traditional values are the two most serious problems according to Republicans.

civic education that is less about the state

We are completing the tenth (!) annual Summer Institute of Civic Studies, which revolves around the three schools of civic theory outlined below. (Each “school” encompasses diverse views and criticisms.) Today we talked about what these theories would mean for civic education at various levels and in several nations.

I certainly don’t advocate assigning The Theory of Communicative Action vols. 1-2Governing the Commons, or Hind Swaraj in an 8th grade civics class. But we might involve 8th graders in managing common resources, incorporate them in the public sphere by inviting them to join public deliberations, and ask them to develop strategies for addressing power disparities at the human level. Indeed, we do all these things, but they tend to be somewhat marginal in civics curricula around the world, which focus much more on the state, the law, and the citizen in relation to those.

The Bloomington School of Political Economy (Elinor Ostrom et al) The Frankfurt School in its second generation (Jurgen Habermas et al) Nonviolent social movements (Gandhi/King)
Fundamental problem People fail to achieve what would be good for them collectively People manipulate other people by influencing their opinions and goals People fail to view others (or themselves) as fully human
Characteristic starting point People know what they want but can’t get it People don’t know what they want or want the wrong things Some people won’t recognize other people as fellow citizens
Prominent example of failure We destroy an environmental asset by failing to work together Government or corporate propaganda distorts our authentic values One national or ethnic group exploits another
Essential behavior of a citizen Working together to make or preserve something. Talking and listening about controversial values. Using nonviolent sacrifice to compel change
Keyword Collaboration Deliberation Relationships
Instead of homo economicus (the individual who maximizes material self-interest) we need … Homo faber (the person as a maker) Homo sapiens (the person as a reasoner) or homo politicus (the participant in public assemblies) A satyagrahi (the person as a bearer of soul force)
Role of the state A set of nested and overlapping associations, not fundamentally different from other associations (firms, nonprofits, etc.) Citizens form public opinion, which should guide the state, which makes law. The state should be radically distinct from other sectors A target of demands
Modernity is … A threat to local and traditional ways of cooperating, but we can use science to assist people in solving their own problems A process of enlightenment that liberates people, but it goes wrong when states and markets “colonize” the private domain For Gandhi: An imperialist imposition, undermining swaraj
How facts and values are combined Not explicitly. Implicitly by using research on collective action to liberate people for reflective self-government By proposing counterfactual ideals such as “the ideal speech situation” and diagnosing the reasons these are not met Through “experiments in living”

In a prophetic mode

Main interdisciplinary combination Game theory plus observations of indigenous problem-solving Normative philosophy (mainly achieved through critical readings of past philosophers) plus system-level sociology Critical theology plus military strategy

support civics in Massachusetts #CivicsforMA #MAcivicsforall

Right now is a “virtual advocacy day” for Massachusetts S.2375, “an act to promote and enhance civic engagement. I’m doing my bit by blogging in support of the law–which will also need an adequate appropriation. The bill would:

  • Require that all public schools teach American history and civics education in accordance with the History and Social Science Curriculum Framework.
  •  Establish a “Civics Project Fund,” which shall be used by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to implement the various requirements of the bill (including offering professional development and developing model curriculum). The fund will consist of appropriations and donated funds.
  • Mandate that every student in the Massachusetts public school system have the
    opportunity to participate in at least 2 student-led civics projects, at least one of which
    would be completed after 8th grade and would be a graduation requirement. Projects may be individual, small group, class-wide, or as part of required coursework.
  • Allow DESE, subject to resources, to establish regional civics councils to monitor and
    provide resources for civics education implementation throughout the commonwealth.
    DESE may also hold annual conventions for such regional councils to meet and assess
    the state of civics education, share best practices, and make recommendations to the
    Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE).
  • Require DESE, subject to resources, to create tools aligned with the History and Social
    Sciences Curriculum Framework to support districts in implementation .
  • Require DESE, subject to resources, to establish the “Edward Moore Kennedy and Edward William Brooke III Civics Challenge,” which shall be available to all eighth-grade public school students. Student participants will present civics projects for evaluation and recognition.
  • Direct the Secretary of the Commonwealth to establish a “High School Voter Challenge” in which every public high school may nominate one or more students to serve as voter outreach coordinators. Designated “high school voter challenge weeks” will be used to hold voter registration drives for students who are eligible to register or pre-register to vote. The Secretary will also be responsible for disseminating information to cities and towns to promote youth membership on municipal boards, committees and commissions.
  • Require BESE to provide opportunities for educators to receive professional development.
  • Require DESE to convene a commission to develop a proposal for the establishment of a civic education and public service program for Massachusetts youth.
  • Require DESE to conduct a study on the implementation of the act.

See also: the first “civic ed” bill: 1642my exchange with Beth Rubin about policy for civics; and new overview of civic education

take a survey on civic education in the US

Would you be willing to take a survey that will help a new coalition expand and improve civic education in the USA? This coalition is led by iCivics, and many leaders in the field have already joined. I am part of this coalition.

The online survey will take less than 15 minutes to complete. It will ask you a few questions about who you are, how you personally relate to civic education, and what you think about the state of civic education today.

The survey will also lead you through an exercise called the “Five Whys.” You’ll be asked whether you think that we provide good enough civic education in the USA today. If you don’t think so, you’ll be asked “What is one reason that civic education is not good enough today?” You’ll suggest a reason, and then you’ll be asked why you think that reason exists. Next, you’ll be asked for a reason for that reason. This activity will continue until you have had a chance to offer a chain of five reasons.

This brainstorming exercise will allow a broad range of people to suggest underlying causes of unsatisfactory civic education. (Or you may argue that civic education is fine as it is.) Some people who take this survey will also be invited to take a second survey later on. The second survey will help us to organize and prioritize the causes.

If you wish to take the survey, this is the link:

It can be taken on a computer or a smartphone.

The survey begins with more information about the research and requests your consent to proceed. If you are under 18 years old, you must ask a parent or guardian also to give permission by typing his or her name in the form.

deliberation or simulated deliberation? choices for the classroom

In an article published today (“Deliberation or Simulated Deliberation?” in Democracy and Education, 26, 1, Article 7), I respond to a valuable previous piece by Margaret S. Crocco and her colleagues, “Deliberating Public Policy Issues with Adolescents: Classroom Dynamics and Sociocultural Considerations.” These authors analyze classroom “deliberations” of current events and find disappointing results. Their analysis is rigorous and insightful. One finding particularly caught my eye.

It is interesting that even students at the school with a large immigrant population tended to talk about immigrants as “they” when they deliberated about national policy. They were essentially role-playing the government or perhaps a body of influential citizens of the United States. As Crocco and her colleagues write, “Participating in the public debate about immigration in U.S. classrooms positions one as an insider with all the privileges of excluding outsiders that result from this status” (Crocco et al., 2018). This is evidence that the students experienced the discussion as a kind of role-play.

That finding leads me to propose that discussions can vary on two dimensions. Talking can result in an actual decision, or it can be about a simulated or hypothetical decision. And the participants can either speak for themselves or role-play characters. Those distinctions produce four types, all of which can be found in actual classrooms (and in settings for adults, such as community fora.)

I think Crocco et al. provide some grounds for skepticism about simulated decision-making discussions in which the speakers represent themselves (cell 3). When we ask students (or adults) to discuss what “we” should do, where the “we” is actually a vast or distant entity, such as the US government, we position them as insiders even though they know they are outsiders. This disjunction could be fun or interesting, but I think often it just alienates.

The other cells are more promising. It’s better to be able to: (1) govern a real entity, such as a student-led association, (2) give advice to a real decision-maker, or (4) pretend that you hold a decision-making role, such as a Senator in a fictional Congress.

There are benign reasons to turn national issues into topics for small-group discussions. The goal is to make students (or others) feel that the government is theirs. It does belong to them, as a matter of justice, and it’s great if they take away that feeling. But we must be serious about their limited power, or they will perceive the discussion as fake and perhaps draw the conclusion that democracy is fundamentally a false promise. As I write in the article:

The students in these three classes did not actually decide about immigration. At most, they might shift their individual opinions on that topic, and if they encouraged others outside the class to change their opinions in similar ways, that could possibly affect national policy by influencing those people’s votes. But that is a remote form of impact for any citizen to consider, and especially for students who are not old enough to vote themselves. The United States is an “Imagined Community” (Anderson, 1991), not a group of people who literally make decisions. The real group—a classroom full of students—was pretending to deliberate.

That is how I would explain why the results were disappointing.

Michael A. Rebell, Flunking Democracy: Schools, Courts, and Civic Participation

This is a very important new book: Michael A. Rebell, Flunking Democracy: Schools, Courts, and Civic Participation (University of Chicago Press, 2018).

My blurb on the back cover says, “Michael Rebell makes a powerful and original case that litigation can and should improve civic education. He skillfully assembles evidence from the existing literature to show that civic education is important for the future of our democracy and requires improvement, then further applies his deep knowledge and experience with education-reform litigation to argue persuasively that courts can and would consider lawsuits requiring states to improve their policies for civic education.”

I’d add that this is one of the best available summaries of the research on civic education. Rebell really does demonstrate that litigation is a plausible strategy for improving civics. One reason is that state constitutions often explicitly cite preparing citizens to vote and serve on juries as the main rationale for establishing a right to education. Finally, Rebell offers sophisticated solutions. In a way, the hardest question is what a state should do if a court orders it to improve its civic education. There are complex debates about the value of policies like tests and required courses, and no single policy will work in every state and for every purpose.* But Rebell explains that courts can require processes that involve deliberation about strategies, experimentation, and assessment. That means that a court wouldn’t have to order a policy but could require a flexible process and then hold the state accountable for making serious efforts.

* See my exchange with Beth Rubin about policy for civicsnew overview of civic education, and state policies for civics: it’s all about implementation.