School House Wonk

"Genius without education is like silver in the mine." Benjamin Franklin

Reading, Writing and . . . Civics

The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) urged the public education system to re-examine the role civics education plays in K-12 instruction in a series of ten research papers released last week.  The authors of those papers made the case that civics education is as critical as mathematics and literacy for preparing students to become active and productive members of their community.  The papers examined what civics education should look like, how it can be taught, the challenges teachers and schools face, and the opportunities for using new media to teaching it.

As reported by Jaclyn Zubrzycki in Education Week, a primary aim of the research is to show that civic skills, like those of reading and math, can be evaluated and measured. The work will also profile what lessons students and faculty can learn from schools that teach civics well.  Specifically, the research group will examine whether schools that place a greater emphasis on civic values produce students and schools with a heightened ethos of civic responsibility. The researchers will look not just at whether students are learning the basic concepts of civics education, but whether certain curriculum or teaching strategies actually make for a better informed citizenry. According to another author (David Campbell of University of Notre Dame), research already shows that some private and charter schools impart civic values with greater success than regular public schools.

Peter Levine (of Tufts University) explained it this way:

If you ask the average person what they think is going on with civics education, they’ll say, ‘They don’t teach this anymore the way they did when I was a kid.’  They’re right.

According to Levine, we need to build on learning the basic facts of civics by teaching students how to apply those skills, so that they are “able to understand the news and form one’s own opinions about the news, and . . . able to affect one’s community in a productive way.”

Another paper focused on how to use student engagement in digital media “as a potential bridge between what students find engaging and what they need to know,” said Joseph Kahne, another researcher on the project.  Successful online programs such as retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s iCivics and Youmedia of Chicago are making great strides in this arena. These two online offerings demonstrate how digital media can be deployed to reach and teach students about civics in highly diverse ways.

Beth T. Sigall, October 24, 2011

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