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Department’s Approach to Rethinking Civics Education Gives New Lens Into A More Effective Education System

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January 31, 2012 02:42 pm


Earlier this month, Secretary Duncan gave a speech on a 21st century civic education. The speech and the subsequent reports that accompanied it, highlight the depth of an important problem.  What’s captured my attention more and more in looking at these reports and statements more closely is elements of a common, coherent strategy to tackling key educational challenges and achieving stronger educational outcomes.  There are two striking features of these reports that is supported by approaches the Alliance advocates for. First, there is an emphasis on blurring the lines of what falls in the responsibility of secondary vs. postsecondary education. Secondly, there is an emphasis on changing the fundamental way education is delivered to focus on more active approaches.

Of course the need that gives rise to the Department’s initiative on civic education could not be more important. Education is not only the key to the nation’s economic health, but the nation’s civic health as well.  To that end, if a doctor was asked to give a prognosis on the nation’s civic health through students’ civic competency, the nation would fail its’ check up.  Governor Wise and other panelists highlighted some of these points this last summer in a 4th of July webinar on the Nation’s Report Card for History and Civics.   On the nation’s most recent US History Report Card, less than a quarter of 12th graders were deemed proficient and a significant civic achievement gap persists between racial and ethnic groups. The numbers are unchanged over the last ten years.

The challenges here cannot be underestimated.  High school students are not only on the cusp of a major transition to college and careers, but civic life as well.  This made the Department’s recently released report, Advancing Civic Learning and Engagement in Democracy: A Road Map and Call to Action all the more significant and timely. The report points to a civic deficit of the competencies students display and the capacities needed to continue the nation’s strong democratic traditions.  While the report focuses more attention to how this can be addressed at the post secondary level, it highlights that civic health should be an issue of concern of the K-12 system as well.  It ends with recommendations on how the Department can marshal resources and efforts to support a 21st century civic education at the K-12 and postsecondary level.

The Department’s efforts in this initiative are significant for many reasons, but as I mentioned, I want to highlight two in particular that resonated with me. First, the Department has seized a problem of incredible national significance and rather than putting the solution into a neat silo, it is attacking it more comprehensively.  The approach isn’t to address this issue at the K-12 or the postsecondary level, but have the solutions span across the K-16 continuum.  Secondly, given that our civic results are not only in the basement, but have been stuck in the basement, the Department isn’t settling on doing more of what’s already been done.  Instead, the Department joined former US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in noting that changing these civic trends will require, “moving  beyond your “grandmother’s civics” to what has been labeled “action civics””.  Rather than regurgitating material from a textbook, the approach calls for greater utilization of service-learning and approaches that give students opportunities to apply what they learn to real life situations through opportunities like service-learning and school-based enterprises.

This strategy dovetails on the Alliance’s approach to ensuring more students are graduating college- and- career ready.   A high school diploma is no longer a destination in today’s economy. In order for students to succeed in the future, the high school diploma must act as a passport to some other type of postsecondary education be it job training, associates, bachelors, or some other postsecondary educational opportunity.  With that reality, it is not enough to just to think about why students are unprepared to finish high school, but why so many of those that even do finish high school are unprepared to succeed at the postsecondary level.  Such questions helped drive cross-system thinking that led to the articulation of standards in the Common Core State Standards Initiative and a greater need for articulation agreements and partnerships between secondary and postsecondary institutions to ensure more students graduate high school college- and- career ready. In this way the Department’s thinking on civic education is consistent with what needs to happen on other key educational priorities as well.   We need to begin to blur the lines of what is deemed the responsibility of secondary education and what is the responsibility of education, because the goal of both should be to prepare all students to be ready for the demands of the 21st century.

To that point, it is not just advocates for stronger civic education who argue that a singular emphasis on lecture based teaching and standardized test taking fails to effectively prepare students for the future.  Postsecondary faculty and employers are also demanding that students not only master content in key disciplines, but to also be able to apply their knowledge in solving real life problems.  In the Alliance’s work, this has led to a greater emphasis on “deeper learning” educational strategies, the Linked Learning approach which integrates rigorous academics with hands-on learning approaches, and opportunities to apply learning to real life situations through digital learning.

These more active learning approaches are not a substitute for rigorous academics. Instead they redefine how rigorous academic content is delivered.  Having to choose between rigor and relevance is a false choice the nation no longer has to make.  Indeed, as the Department’s report notes, approaches like service-learning have been shown to actually improve academic achievement, graduation rates, and other key indicators of student success.  In the end big problems require big ideas and the Department’s approach includes some big and common sense ideas.  We must rethink who we hold responsible for accomplishing key education goals and begin to fundamentally move away from the more traditional ways education has been delivered and the Department’s approach to civic education does just that.


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