unveiling a systems map for k-12 civic education

This is a systems map for k-12 civic education, developed for the CivXNow coalition and intended to guide the coalition and its members and allies. You can explore it here and also drill down to a more complex underlying map here.

[Suggested citation: Peter Levine, Louise Dubé, and Sarah Shugars, “Civic Education Systems Map,” Medford, MA: Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life/CivXNow Coalition, 2018]

Why use systems-mapping to analyze an issue and guide a coalition?

Any coalition needs a strategy, and it must be …

  1. Sufficiently complex for the issue: There is rarely one root cause or one leverage point. Many factors matter, and some outcomes are also inputs or causes.
  2. Supported by the grassroots, not just organizational leaders: Members of the coalition’s organizations must support the plan and believe that people like them had a voice. It can’t just be designed by the apex leaders.
  3. Broadly engaging: There must be roles for many different kinds of organizations and people to play. It can’t be limited to levers that only a few groups can pull.
  4. Widely supported: It must win a degree of consensus. Majority support isn’t good enough. If substantial portions of the coalition disagree with the plan, they will peel away. They may not quit or complain, but they will refrain from actively supporting the coalition.

… but also …

  1. Coherent and concise: The plan can’t just be a list of what everyone already favors.

Traditional methods for accomplishing these goals included electing a steering committee who would draft a document and ask for a vote of organizations or their representatives. These methods never worked all that well and they seem obsolete now.

Building on network science, 100Kin10’s approach to mapping the Grand Challenges of the STEM teacher shortage, and other experiments (like those of the Democracy Fund), we invited more than 7,500 people to co-produce this system map for k-12 civic education. I believe the result meets the five criteria listed above.

Importantly, people were not asked to rank issues by importance or to vote on priorities. Instead, they were asked very specific analytical questions based on their experience of the world around them. From their answers, we derived a systems map that suggests high leverage points.

Although we originally asked about civic education in an open-ended way, it’s clear that most respondents were focused on the k-12 age range and on schools as venues. This means that the map is not about youth civic engagement in communities and social movements; the formal political system (voting rights, gerrymandering, campaigns); news and social media; higher education; or education beyond civics (e.g., who attends what kinds of schools).

I regard this focus as a strength. K-12 civics is a system that relates to other systems. Mapping everything is impossible and a distracting ideal. If your own focus is a neighbor of k-12 civics–say, youth organizing, or engagement in higher education–then this map may help you see how to connect to k-12 civics.

How to read the map

The circles or nodes represent circumstances that we should work to accomplish. You could think of them as goals. An arrow connects two circles if improving the first would help improve the second. Larger nodes have more connections. Larger arrows suggest that the causal connections are stronger or clearer. Click on any node to read more about it. Hover over any node or arrow to see its immediate neighbors.

Each node combines more specific components, and those are displayed on the more complex map.

The whole point of a systems map is to avoid a simple distinction between inputs and outputs, causes and effects. Effects tend to influence causes. However, it would be reasonable to read the main map as basically flowing downward from the key leverage points, via intermediaries, to the widely-shared goals of youth civic knowledge and youth civic engagement.

Findings and how to use the map

The components that are furthest upstream and may have the most influence–without themselves being influenced by many factors shown on the map–include the public’s commitment to civics and schools’ embrace of their civic missions, the degree to which civics is relevant and engaging, and policies at the state and federal level that require and/or assess civics.

Factors that are midstream–being affected by other factors and directly boosting youth outcomes–include professional development, engaging pedagogy, inclusion of current and contentious issues, and funding specifically for civics.

Some factors are shown as not highly connected to the rest of the network–notably, “Civics is taught well in a context of political polarization and bias” and “Civic life is healthy.” This does not mean that these factors are unimportant. You could reasonably think that they are essential. The map suggests that they don’t have a lot of leverage over other factors. For instance, navigating bias may be essential, but the map suggests that it doesn’t lead to more funding, or assessments, or better materials.

A use case: A colleague noted that his state has chosen civically engaged youth as its goal. The portion of the map shown below presents a subsystem of relevance to him and his colleagues. It suggests that it’s essential for schools to make civic education more of a priority. One (but only one) reason is that schools and systems that care more about civics will allocate more funding specifically for it. There are relationships among youth knowledge of civics, youth civic engagement, and civics that addresses current controversies. In other words, kids learn content and are energized if they address current issues in school. It’s also important that schools be effective and fair institutions, although that may feel beyond the control of the civics field.

If our colleague wants to know how to encourage schools in his state to embrace their civic mission, he could click on that node (at the top of this illustration) to see its causes in turn.

More generally, the map can be used for:

  • Insight: Perhaps it was not already evident that these factors relate in this way. The map may offer insight.
  • Diagnosis: The map poses diagnostic questions. How strongly do the schools in your community embrace their civic missions? To what extent do students discuss contested current issues? Do these factors improve as a result of your efforts?
  • Support: No self-appointed committee decided that these factors are related in the ways shown above. The diagram emerged from more than 7,500 people’s careful assessments of specific empirical questions. That is a basis for advising relevant decision-makers on how to act.

What if you disagree?

I find myself broadly in sync with this diagram. But what if you don’t see the ideas or connections that matter most to you on the map?

  1. It’s worth zooming to the more complex map to see if they are there. On that detailed map, you can click buttons to identify all the factors that may be especially relevant if you have a particular take on civic education, such as Action Civics, a social justice orientation, a concern for civil discourse in and out of schools, or a focus on original texts and US history. (Note that these emphases are not mutually exclusive–I happen to endorse them all.) The ideas on the simpler main map are relatively content-neutral, and debates about content appear when you zoom in closer. I think that is appropriate. For instance, if we provide professional development (PD) for civics, then we can discuss what teachers should learn. There will be some healthy debates about that question, as well as some consensus and some room for pluralism and individual choice. But if very little PD is available for civics, then the debate about content is a bit empty. Thus PD goes on the main map, and what teachers should learn is explored on the more detailed map.
  2. Your focus might be on a different “system,” such as electoral politics or higher ed. Then the disclaimer about our focus on k-12 schools applies.
  3. You may be right, and the bulk of the 7,500 respondents may be wrong. In that case, the data suggest that you have some persuasion to do, and maybe you should build or publicize a pilot or demonstration program that supports your point. One definition of social entrepreneurship is filling perceived gaps in existing systems. Social entrepreneurship begins by analyzing mainstream views of an existing system (as our map does), identifying gaps, and addressing them.

The method

We first fielded a survey to identify possible causal factors. We recruited 6,495 respondents through a variety of networks. Twenty-one percent of the respondents were k-12 civics teachers; nine percent worked for organizations that address civics; five percent were current k-12 students; two percent were adult civic educators who don’t work in K-12 classrooms; and the sample also included people with many other relationships to civics, including parents who are not teachers, academic experts, funders, and policymakers.

The sample was not demographically representative of youth. Even compared to adult Americans, it tilted whiter (79%) and older (mean age 47)–as do classroom teachers. I acknowledge this as a limitation, but I would add that we never counted the number of votes for any particular idea. We used this survey to brainstorm issues, and it didn’t matter how many people named any given issue. Therefore, the most important question is whether there were significant numbers of young people and people of color to get their issues on the agenda. In fact, 289 people were under age 18, 230 were African American, 262 were Latinx, 122 were Asian, and 78 were Native American.

We used a modified version of the 5 Whys method, first developed by Toyota’s engineers. A core question on our survey was, “Do you think that we provide good enough civic education in the USA today?”

Thirteen percent believed that civics is satisfactory as it is, and they were asked to elaborate. The rest thought that we do not provide adequate civics. They were asked why not: “Now we ask you to think about an underlying cause of that problem. What is an important reason that civics needs improvement?” They gave open-ended responses to that question. Then each respondent was shown his or her own answer and asked to explain that problem. “Now we’d like you to go even deeper. Why is this? Why do you think this happens?” We continued this process until we had more than 12,600 open-ended ideas about the causes of inadequate civics, including 2,800 responses that were five layers “deep.”

As people went deeper, they often began to cite very broad, possibly intractable problems, such as public apathy or an unresponsive political system. Some mentioned political polarization, but more named the left or the right as a harmful influence. The 5 Whys focuses on problems, and pushing respondents four or five levels deep tended to uncover a fair amount of frustration and polarization.

Our next task was to turn these 12,600 responses (including very few precise duplicates) into a much smaller set of factors that would capture the diversity of respondents’ views. Furthermore, we wanted to turn problem statements into levers for positive change. Instead of a list of problems, we wanted a list of specific goals that a coalition could work on.

For example, these are actual statements from the first survey (and there were many more like them):

  • “STEM is seen as more important”
  • “There is such an emphasis on testing, science and math, that civics is not emphasized enough.”
  • “Emphasis on science & math leads to cuts in time for other subjects.”
  • “In overemphasizing STEM, we have neglected all the arts (including history and civics).”

We translated all of these ideas into one phrase that summarizes a possible goal: “the number of people who view social studies as just as important as STEM increases.” We also wrote a second goal statement that captured related ideas: “the proportion of adults who believe that stem and civics can go together increases.”

To reduce the full list of 12,600 problem statements to 75 such goal statements, we used a combination of Natural Language Processing (which automatically puts text into clusters) and human coding and judgment. We omitted no original response because we disagreed with it or deemed it beyond the scope of our coalition. For example, someone wrote, “Civic education in most colleges and universities have socialist and marxist educators that use their time to indoctrinate and they do not educate.” Someone else wrote, “Since No Child Left Behind (created by George W. Bush to help his brother Neil’s testing industry biz) our politicians have seen education funding as an opportunity to make money.” We collapsed these comments, and many more like them, into two goals for consideration: “right-wing influence on civics decreases” and “left-wing influence on civics decreases.”

Then we fielded a second survey, drawing mostly on the same respondents. In this survey, respondents were shown 15 pairs of randomly selected possible goals, one pair at time. For each pair, they were asked (in effect) whether A causes B to increase, whether A causes B to decrease, and whether causing B to increase would be a good thing or not. Here is an example of an actual item:

I chose A, but that is a matter of judgment. I could see an argument for C, or even a tenuous case for B or D. If such questions had obvious answers, we wouldn’t need a collaborative process. Our method is to ask multiple people to share their best judgment about pairings like this one, based on their own experience.

If 75 factors can be linked to one another in either direction (A causes B and/or B causes A), there are 10,100 possible links. We recruited 1,825 people to take this survey (of whom 1,057 had also taken the first one). Each pair of nodes was reviewed at least three times and sometimes more than ten times. Once a link had been reviewed many times, we deleted it from the survey to channel responses to the pairs that had been randomly overlooked so far.

We treated a possible link as actual if 90% of the raters or at least 9 raters considered it a positive causal link. About 80% of the possible edges had some support as real causal connections; and 18% reached the 90% threshold. This produced a map that is too complex to guide action, although it’s perhaps an accurate reflection of the actual topic. It is the map shown here.

To simplify it, we clustered the 75 nodes conceptually. Two raters compared schemata and resolved differences to produce 14 nodes for the main map. We also asked 12 representatives of state education agencies gathered at a meeting to make their own clusterings and used their ideas to inform us. The best measure of inter-rater reliability when you have many raters and open-ended codes is Krippendorff’s alpha, which was fairly low, but that appears to be because many of the state representatives did not get around to categorizing most of the 75 ideas at all. There is certainly some subjectivity involved in our clustering, but we are transparent about the components of each cluster.

The maps also indicate which ideas were controversial, in the sense that some people thought these outcomes would be bad. The rate of controversy was never high–usually under 5%. However, this may be an underestimate, because if raters saw no causal link at all between two nodes, they couldn’t indicate that either of the nodes was bad.

an expert class and the grassroots

(Menlo Park, CA) Here I am at Facebook, posting on Facebook. I’m with about 160 other people, and we’re having a valuable conversation about how to measure and assess civic education. (The space is leant to us by Facebook, but the organizers, CivXNow, are fully independent from Facebook.)

The participants bring highly diverse expertise, professional backgrounds, and opinions of relevant topics–from the nature of a good citizen to the appropriate role of testing. They are somewhat diverse racially and culturally, but much less so than the nation or our nation’s students. They are the kinds of people who can get their flights to California reimbursed from an organization’s budget, who can put titles on their name tags, and who can be asked to address specific issues as experts. Even if they perfectly represented America’s students and parents in terms of race and ethnicity, they would be sociologically different. This is a slice of the professional class.

Speakers have named that problem, as they should. Any group concerned with enhancing democracy should ask whether it is operating democratically. Democratic values include representation, voice, and accountability. If a bunch of adults with titles on their name tags talk about kids, they do not represent youth, give youth voice, or make themselves accountable to youth.

But I think it’s important to be realistic about the challenge. A defining feature of modernity–possibly the defining feature–is specialization. In socialist and capitalist societies alike, roles are differentiated and assigned to people who demonstrate and build specialized experience and training over years. Per Wikipedia, Max Weber’s definition of a “bureaucracy” is:

  • hierarchical organization
  • formal lines of authority
  • a fixed area of activity
  • rigid division of labor
  • regular and continuous execution of assigned tasks
  • all decisions and powers specified and restricted by regulations
  • officials with expert training in their fields
  • career advancement dependent on technical qualifications
  • qualifications evaluated by organizational rules, not individuals

Some successful organizations avoid the narrowest versions of these characteristics. For instance, they don’t divide tasks too “rigidly.” But they all do some of the above, and for an important reason: it works. Specialization, formal lines of authority, expertise and training all improve efficiency.

Because bureaucracy (within appropriate limits) boosts efficiency, it also confers power. People in organizations are more powerful than amorphous masses of people. A conference of representatives of organizations has more influence than a gathering of representative citizens would have. Apart from anything else, it can interlock with other bureaucratic systems, from state agencies to Facebook. But it must be demographically unrepresentative of the people it intends to help, at least in terms of age, employment, and educational attainment. Maybe Robert Michels exaggerated when he observed an Iron Law of Oligarchy, but if it’s not a law, it’s a strong tendency.

There is also power in grassroots politics, social movements, mass meetings, viral media campaigns, and the like. In fact, the people can swamp a Weberian bureaucracy. But popular politics is very different from organizational networking.

At our best, I think we can blur some of these boundaries. (For instance, there are a few eloquent and impressive k-12 students at this meeting.) We can cross boundaries in our own lives and careers, spending some time in settings where we are not experts or leaders, even if we wear name tags with impressive titles in other settings. We can morph from organizations to movements and back. And we can develop new methods for engaging grassroots publics in our organizations’ work. (This survey is an example.) But we shouldn’t kid ourselves that social change occurs without organizations or that organizational leaders can be truly representative of the public.

See also: who must be included in which meetings, committees, and movements?; Nicole Doerr, Political Translation: How Social Movement Democracies Survive; the rise of an expert class and its implications for democracy; and what gives some research methods legitimacy?

was Aristotle right about what we must know to be good citizens?

Let’s posit that a good citizen should be able to a) form ideas about what would improve her community or society, b) understand how decisions about such matters are actually made and who has power to make each decision, c) persuade those people to think and act differently, and d) do all of the above ethically, which means reflecting on right and wrong.

A name for b) is “politics”; for c), “rhetoric”; and for d0, “ethics.” Aristotle wrote a book on each of those topics, and, although he didn’t give titles to any of his books, these are the names that we give them.

The Politics is about how city-states worked, about the pros and cons of various forms of government, and about the role of citizens in these states. The Rhetoric is about persuasion, but especially about “how to generate trust in ways that preserve an audience’s autonomy and accord with the norms of friendship” (Danielle Allen, Talking to Strangers, p. 141). In other words, it’s about persuading responsibly, to the benefit of the listener. And the Nicomachean Ethics is about how to live a good life.

As the founder of a school (the original “Lyceum”), Aristotle meant his works to frame a curriculum. The good citizen should study politics, rhetoric, and ethics.

Was he right? I think largely so, with two caveats.

First, Aristotle had little to say about the actual decisions that confront a community. Ancient Athenians had to decide whether to build a wall or more ships, to invade Sicily or pursue peace with Sparta, to rebuild the Parthenon or use the money for something else. In our day, we must decide what to do about climate change, policing, economic growth and equality, and myriad other issues. Aristotle didn’t address most of the policy questions of his day, let alone those of our time. And he didn’t make “policy analysis” a part of his civic curriculum.

I think one reason was that he didn’t believe that general, theoretical reasoning was helpful for policymaking. Wise collective action was a matter of phronesis, judgment, and it was highly concrete. Citizens should deliberate about whether to build more triremes and should learn from the results. No abstract theory would help them to decide.

The other reason may have been a kind of elitism. Expertise existed about military, architectural, economic, medical, and agricultural matters, but it belonged to tradesmen (broadly defined). Gentlemen-citizens were generalists who lacked such knowledge. Their role was to consult experts when necessary and then to make all-things-considered judgments. A curriculum for gentlemen-citizens was about politics, rhetoric, and ethics, not about policy.

In contrast, we have disciplines such as economics, medicine, law, education, social work, international relations (and many more) that confer the highest social status and that promise knowledge relevant to making decisions. They sometimes even promise to be able to determine the best policies. For instance, if economics works, it should generate answers about questions involving taxes and interest rates. Advanced education for leaders has turned into the study of public policy, largely to the exclusion of rhetoric, ethics, and even politics, in Aristotle’s sense.

We might think that the pendulum has swung too far, because we really do need phronesis to make decisions. There are few algorithms that can determine a better policy. And to exercise judgment, we need ethics, rhetoric, and politics. But we wouldn’t want the pendulum to swing all the way back to Aristotle’s view, which is too disparaging of the study of policy. We should add the social sciences to Aristotle’s curriculum.

The second caveat concerns how we interpret Aristotle’s project and continue it. One type of interpretation emphasizes the consistency of Aristotle’s whole philosophy. He perceives ethics as connected not only to rhetoric and politics but also to logic, metaphysics, and natural science. It’s all part of one coherent universe organized by a small number of principles. A major test of whether a view is right is whether it coheres with this whole system.

If you think of Aristotle’s system as an inspiration, but you want to update it for a new era, you may try to build a new system. You won’t derive your specific views from any social science but from the elaboration of an overall view of the world: a systematic philosophy.

Thomas Aquinas exemplifies this approach. He believes that Aristotle must be updated by adding Christianity, and he writes a new systematic philosophy to that end. He begins with the question of God’s existence and works from there toward all other questions. When Aquinas gets to politics in the second part of the second part, question 58, his topics are: (1) What is justice? (2) Whether justice is always towards another? (3) Whether it is a virtue? (4) Whether it is in the will as its subject? (5) Whether it is a general virtue?; (6) Whether, as a general virtue, it is essentially the same as every virtue? — and so on.

The ornate cathedral of Aquinas’ thought might seem like a mere curiosity, except that the urge to systematize has been common, and Aristotle has often served as a model.

The alternative is to emphasize the Aristotelian idea of phronesis, practical wisdom. What Aristotle offers are some very general guidelines about how to organize political communities in which individuals who strive for personal virtue can argue productively about what to do together. No theory settles how to structure political organizations, how to live, or what policy arguments are right, but Aristotle inaugurates a process of thinking about those three topics together. And they are still more or less the right topics for citizens.

See also against a cerebral view of citizenship; Bent Flyvbjerg’s radical alternative to applied social science; Bent Flyvbjerg and social science as phronesis; on philosophy as a way of life.

the justice-oriented citizen had better be personally responsible and participatory

Joel Westheimer’s and Joe Kahne’s typology of civic education programs and their intended outcomes is justly seminal in the field of civic education.* Many civics people are familiar with their distinctions among “personally responsible,” “participatory” and “justice-oriented” citizens as the goals of real-world programs and curricula. Most reflective educators favor the last type, although the first type is the most common in everyday practice.

Discussing their article in an undergraduate course in which we also read Martin Luther King, Jr’s book Stride Toward Freedom, I was struck by how perfectly the first two columns describe the people who won the struggle of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. They “volunteer[ed] to lend a hand” so that thousands of Black workers could get to and from their workplaces without using the segregated buses. They had long traditions of belonging and tithing to churches, so they could be organized in their pews to support a boycott. They “obeyed laws,” except when they broke very specific laws as part of civil disobedience campaigns, and they followed the emergent rules of their own movement. They knew “how government agencies worked”–so well that they won federal lawsuits. And they were brilliant at “strategies for accomplishing collective tasks.”

To be sure, they were also justice-oriented. That is why I cite them as an example. Justice rolled down like waters. But imagine a bunch of individuals who “critically assessed” the “structures” of white supremacy and “explored” its “root causes,” asking whether it was fundamentally based in racism, or imperialism, or capitalism, or in-group bias, or law and government, or the fallen state of Man. These people might be justice-oriented but completely ineffective–hence complicit in the maintenance of the system.

If most schools try to impart personal responsibility and evade the question of justice, then it’s important to put the debate about justice on the educational agenda. But in circles where people are eager to debate the root causes of injustice, it’s vital to study how to identify levers for change, organize individuals to contribute their time and effort, and get things done.

Source: Westheimer, Joel, and Joseph Kahne. “Educating the “good” citizen: Political choices and pedagogical goals.” PS: Political Science & Politics 37.2 (2004): 241-247. See also: against root cause analysisincreasing the odds of success for young people’s civic worksocial movements depend on social capital (but you can make your own); and the kind of sacrifice required in nonviolence

Governor Charlie Baker signs Massachusetts civic education law

A press release from the the Massachusetts Civic Learning Coalition (of which I’m a member):

The Coalition applauds Governor Charlie Baker for signing into law bill S.2631, giving Massachusetts one of the nation’s most innovative statewide civic education programs. The new law, which Gov. Baker signed today, provides for funding for the professional development of teachers to teach civics effectively, the opportunity for students to participate in civics-based projects, and establishes civic education as a priority for school districts across the state.

The Massachusetts Civic Learning Coalition (MCLC) thanks the State Senate, the House of Representatives and the Governor for their leadership in this legislation. This will help ensure that students across the Commonwealth will have access to a civic education curriculum that teaches them the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, fundamental knowledge about government, such as the functions of each branch and the electoral process, as well as key 21st century skills such as media literacy.

We commend the Legislature and the Governor for giving teachers the support they need to implement and teach the curriculum and facilitate civics projects to prepare students for thoughtful and informed participation in civic life. Specifically, MCLC appreciates the commitment to securing robust funding to implement the bill, including the provision of funds for teacher professional development through the Mass Civics Trust Fund.

“With the enactment of this law, Massachusetts has leapt to the forefront of civics education, joining states such as Florida and Illinois to take an innovative — and necessary — step to ensure that every young person in the state is prepared and engaged in civic life,” iCivics Executive Director Louise Dubé said. “This is a critically important law, passed at a critically  important moment for our state and our country.”

Arielle Jennings, Generation Citizen’s Massachusetts Executive Director said, “Young people often have a hard time seeing the political process as relevant to them and are disengaged from it as a result. This law will help strengthen our democracy by educating a new generation of active citizens.”

The Massachusetts Civic Learning Coalition is a roundtable of twenty civics education organizations, research institutions, school districts, and stakeholders committed to improving the quality and implementation of K-12 civic education for students across the state. Members of the coalition include: The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library Foundation, Generation Citizen Massachusetts, iCivics, and other organizations committed to civic education reform.

For further information on MCLC, please visit www.macivicsforall.org

Justice O’Connor and civics

I’m sorry to read that Justice O’Connor has dementia. She has devoted her retirement years to improving civics, and she has taken that objective fully seriously.

Her greatest contribution is the nonprofit organization she founded to teach civics through video games—a remarkable idea for someone her age to invent. iCivics is now the biggest provider of civic education and contributes immeasurably to the field.

Justice O’Connor has also been a tireless advocate of policies for civics. The landmark civic education legislation in Florida is named after her, for a reason. She co-chaired the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, which colleagues and I launched in 2003. She can be found on panels and ceremonies related to civics from coast to coast. That’s her, for example, to the right of David Skaggs in the picture above. (I’m doing my best to listen to the question from the audience.)

We have crossed paths in those contexts several times. She has often taken me by the hand, bored her steely blue eyes into me, and ordered me to do something—such as evaluate the impact of a national program.  I didn’t always comply but always took the obligation very seriously.

I won’t comment on her jurisprudence, if for no other reason than I haven’t studied it carefully. I have a working theory that she was especially deferential to autonomous institutions, such as universities. Whether that was wise or not is a matter of debate. Today, I’d rather celebrate her as one of the great retirees and citizens of our time.

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