Democracy is Nourished in Our Nation’s Public Schools
The civic mission of schools has a tendency to get lost in the din of other debates surrounding our nation’s education system. Beyond the uproar over teacher evaluations, standardized testing and the role of government, we must keep in mind the fundamental purposes of public education, the heart and soul of a public system.
This civic purpose of public education seeks to empower our nation’s children, and future leaders, with a deep seated understanding of citizenship, civic duty and societal needs. It aims to provide the very tools needed for future generations to participate in the debates surrounding not just education policy, but other critical issues we as a nation – and member of the global community – face in the twenty first century. Education is more than just factual knowledge, and civic engagement and participation depend on a deeper understanding of our culture, society and history.
Last year, the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, in conjunction with several other key civic engagement organizations, released a report entitled Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools. It highlights a few disturbing statistics on the lack of knowledge of many Americans – children and adults alike – when it comes to the basics of our system of government. For example, “only one-third of Americans could name all three branches of government; one-third couldn’t name any.”
A number like this suggests that we clearly need to improve civic education in our nation. The report proposes six proven practices to guarantee a robust and high-quality civic learning experience: classroom instruction, discussion of current events and controversial issues, service-learning, extracurricular activities, school governance and simulations of democratic processes.
The report also highlights several benefits that result from an emphasis on civic education. These benefits are both academic (lower dropout rates and higher assessment scores) and societal (an increased likelihood of voting and discussing politics at home, as well as individuals being four times more likely to volunteer and work on community issues). In addition, the report provides several policy recommendations for state and local leaders as well as federal policymakers that would help ensure that each child graduates from high-school fully able to engage as a citizen.
When imagining what a civics or social studies department might look like in a school, it helps to have a model. At West Chicago Community High School in Illinois, the social studies department decided collectively what they wanted of their graduating seniors: They wanted them to be good citizens. The program they developed to help reach this goal, profiled on The Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools’ website, is an innovative approach to civic education. Their entire four-year course of study is guided by overarching questions and essential ideas, beginning with world history for freshmen and narrowing to American government as seniors. The open ended question they pose to their students: What does it meant to be an effective citizen in the global community?
The culmination of the program is a senior semester-long class, The Legislative Semester and required for all seniors, which simulates the legislative process, covering the structure of government as background, through original texts. Then students imitate the Illinois House of Representative, forming committees, writing bills, campaigning, presenting, and voting. Students also role-play key legislators such as Speakers, Minority and Majority Leaders and the Chief Executive. Finally, at the end of the course, students may challenge the Constitutionality of any bills that have passed, writing briefs that are heard and ruled on by a Supreme Court. Students leave their high-school experience well versed in government process, with a deeper understanding of and respect for the nuances and challenges of governance. They are also more aware of current events and prepared to civically engage as adults on their individual paths.
In the twenty-first century, higher-education is becoming increasingly important and education officials are committed to ensuring that each child graduates prepared for college and career. And skills learned in civics classes such as the one at West Chicago Community High School exemplify those that are highly sought by employers such as the 4Cs: collaboration, creativity, critical-thinking and communication. In addition, a democracy’s vitality and indeed integrity depend on the continued vigilance of citizens over their government, which in turn is dependent on a citizen’s understanding of governance and avenues for engagement.
Unfortunately, in our schools, civics and social studies are sometimes pushed to the sidelines in favor of math and reading – where student performance on standardized tests carries greater weight for schools and districts. But there is no need for it to exist in isolation from other important subjects – reading and interpretation skills are invaluable across disciplines. With the arrival of the Common Core State Standards, which will be pushing us towards a more robust curriculum and knowledge base to ensure that students are prepared for the twenty-first century, I’m hopeful we will see better integration across subjects.
Civics courses like the one at West Chicago Community High School also truly engage students in their learning. Through increased engagement, students stay in school longer, participate more actively as citizens and are prepared to tackle the long-term challenges our country faces. For these and many other reasons, we must support public schools and their immense value as institutions of civic learning.
Click here to browse dozens of Public School Insights interviews with extraordinary education advocates, including:
- 2013 Digital Principal Ryan Imbriale
- Best Selling Author Dan Ariely
- Family Engagement Expert Dr. Maria C. Paredes
The views expressed in this website's interviews do not necessarily represent those of the Learning First Alliance or its members.
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