Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Civic Education's Crisis—and Opportunity



December 6, 1999

School-based civic education is in big trouble—at least that's what a new study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress says. It's national report, released on November 18, shows that only a quarter of today's fourth graders, eighth graders, and high school seniors are 'proficient' in their civic knowledge. This means that three out of every four of today's students may be unable to function as competent members of our political community—now and upon graduation. Civic education is on the critical list.

There is plenty of blame to go around, as education leaders and public officials are busy demonstrating. U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley, for instance, blames a civicly disengaged population of adults, suggesting that its couch-potato habits are being transferred to the rising generation of students. E.J. Dionne, in a recent column on "The Civics Deficit" in The Washington Post (11/30/99), blames an inferior view of civic education: rather than being 'the whole point' of the curriculum, as it was when public schools were first established, civics 'class' is today considered an add-on.

On the other hand, if we look hard enough, the report may contain good news as well. High school seniors who volunteer regularly in their communities, for instance, consistently scored higher than the students who don't. And students in all three grade levels who discuss their schoolwork at home recorded higher scores too. So, students who are more engaged outside the classroom display higher knowledge levels inside the classroom.

In fact, nearly all the cutting-edge initiatives in civic education are building on this connection. And since the report's release, reformers seem more eager than ever to pursue non-traditional alternatives to current classroom-bound practices.

The truth is, to foster both present and future readiness for civic engagement, education must involve students in participatory activities as well as in traditional forms of learning. It's by taking part in politicalor community activities that students see most clearly how their behavior affects others, and that citizens, includingstudents, really can influence the process by which community decisions are made. In the case of civic education, it's practice—much more than reading—that makes perfect.

So, "service learning" initiatives are on the rise all over the country, and this is good. But for this movement to become more effective, closer connections between schools, families, and communities need to be nurtured. A recent study by the Stanford Center on Adolescence indicates that in order to resolve the present civics crisis, young people need "sustained contact with organizations that treat them with respect, operate according to civil rules of conduct, and create opportunities for the safe expression of views."

What an idea: schools, students and families should all be working together. Sounds like a good argument for school choice. But in the meantime, with our current system of public schools, closer connections are still possible.

To discover these, schools need to reconnect with community programs currently offering opportunities for civic engagement. Many of these are faith-based initiatives in which families of students are already involved. By fostering religiously nondiscriminatory service-learning opportunities through publicly run school systems, and by expanding school-choice options for our pluralistic society, government can do its part to strengthen civic education by connecting schooling with these primary and voluntary communities of trust and service.

Since schools, families, and community organizations stand at the heart of civic community, the ties that bind people—including the bonds of faith—should be honored and strengthened,not ignored or threatened, by our education policies.

—Josh Good, Research Associate
   Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”