The Imperative of Civic Education Reform

I just had a new guest commentary in the Falls Church News-Press regarding civic education:

Last year marked the 30th anniversary of A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform, the bombshell Reagan administration report that helped define today’s conventional wisdom about American schools. Thanks to the report – which implied that America’s “preeminence in commerce, industry, science and technology” was “being overtaken by competitors” due to a “rising tide of mediocrity” abetted by public schools – one cannot talk about schools today without hearing that classes are not “rigorous” enough, that American children are “falling behind” Chinese, Indian and Korean children in “competitive skills,” and that the answer is evermore “tougher standards.”

Three decades later, educators are standing up to call “hogwash!” on the report’s themes. When you adjust for poverty, American scores are not ‘falling behind’: non-impoverished school districts lead the world on recent PISA tests. Even more, there is no connection between a nation’s economic productivity and its test scores: Americans have had low-ranking scores for decades and yet still lead the world in economic productivity. Factories have moved to other countries not because they have better-educated citizens, but because they have lower labor standards than Americans find just. In fact, the largest recent economic threat to America – the financial crisis – was caused by the reckless corporate policies of the well-educated. Indeed, we are not A Nation at Risk of falling behind economically and, if we are, don’t blame our public schools.

America’s outlook isn’t exactly rosy, though: We are failing to stem climate change, reign in the corporate crime wave in the financial industry, roll back mass incarceration, and stop the corruption of Congress by monied interests. But these are not failures in economic competitiveness. Rather, they are civic failures: failures by us citizens to address shared problems.

When Ben Franklin was asked what governmental system America was going to end up with, he responded: “a Republic, if you can keep it.” To keep our Republic – the system that places the power to govern in the hands of the People, ourselves – we need civic education: schooling in the democratic values, civic skills, and public-minded determination needed to address today’s civic failures. Perhaps it’s time for a report entitled A Republic at Risk: The Imperative of Civic Education Revitalization.

Falls Church schools should lead the way in revitalizing American civic education. Only providing vague encouragement of ‘service hours’ and a single course on formal Government is a disservice to our high schoolers: Packing kits for the homeless is not the same as pairing such service with responsive political action against the structures that create homelessness; reading about how a bill becomes a law is not the same as developing the hands-on experience that is needed for legislative change.
Fortunately, there are signs of hope for a civic education revival in town: (1) Star teacher Rory Dippold has turned his 7th grade classroom into a home for dynamic, project-based civic engagement, leaving Huskies excited to actively participate in their communities. His Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher nominations illustrate how our community values vigorous civic education. (2) When I proposed a GMHS Public Project Program (, dozens of neighbors reached out, excited to discuss how we can get more project-based civics in the schools. To quote one alumni: “As someone who worked on a public project during high school, it too often felt like the work we achieved was accomplished in spite of our obligations as students instead of in conjunction with them. If we had been encouraged by a program which not only formalized civic creativity as an expectation, but also integrated a supportive framework of knowledge, time, and resources into the high school education system, there’s no telling how far we could have gone.” (3) At the FCCPS Community Visioning, the audience issued a clarion call for more adult mentorship, tighter school-community bonds, and project-based learning. When asked explicitly whether FCCPS’ current level of civic education was adequate, a near-unanimous crowd expressed that FCCPS civic education needed work.

Stakeholders may not agree on the method, but they agree on the imperative: Falls Church needs a stronger civic education program to revive our at-risk Republic. But the question remains: will Superintendent Jones and the school board listen? If the FCCPS Community Visioning process was more than just lip service, then FCCPS will appoint a civic education czar to facilitate an open forum to craft a revitalized civics program for Little City schools. If we were able to find hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer funds to pay the Apple Corporation for controversial computers (money that could have paid for the salary of a full-time civic engagement coordinator), we assuredly can find the resources for the level of civic education for which the community is passionately calling. To join the push, email!

Wall Street Journal Letter to the Editor regarding the minimum wage

I had a letter to the editor published in the Wall Street Journal today regarding the connection between the minimum wage and public assistance programs:

If raising the minimum wage didn’t reduce poverty, then it wouldn’t be shown to shrink public-assistance programs. Yet economists Rachel West and Michael Reich have illustrated how a raise to $10.10 would save taxpayers $4.6 billion in food-stamp outlays. This is in sharp contrast to Mr. Neumark’s proposal to only increase the EITC, which, though an admirable program, would result in more corporate welfare—taxpayers subsidizing the poverty wages of profitable mega-corporations. In the words of conservative Ron Unz: “Doesn’t it make more sense for employers to pay their workers than the government?”

Pete Davis

Time for a Raise Campaign

Center for Study of Responsive Law

Washington, D.C.

Local Civic Halls of Fame

I just had a guest commentary published in the Falls Church News-Press about setting up a “Falls Church Hall of Fame” in Cherry Hill Park:

When Albert Einstein was asked by the New York State Education Department about what schools should emphasize, he responded: “in teaching history, there should be extensive discussion of personalities who benefited mankind through independence of character and judgment.” The genius was right: We need role models to look both back and up to. As citizens, we need civic heroes to remind us how much can be achieved when we embody our communal values in the way we live our lives.

I, for one, was greatly influenced by my exposure to the work of Annette Mills and Dave Eckert, Falls Church civic heroes of the 1990’s and early 2000’s. I remember as a kid hearing about and benefiting from their seminal help in so many tremendous Falls Church projects: the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation, Watch Night, the Blues festival, the recycling program, their Tripps and Four Mile Run stream advocacy, the neighborhood tree program, Operation Earthwatch, and much more. Because I was exposed to their work, I was inspired to get more involved in Falls Church civic life in the hopes of being a tenth as civic as the couple who Tom Whipple once called, “F.C.’s Dynamic Duo.”

We cannot let the example of Falls Church civic heroes like Annette and Dave be lost to history. Our grandchildren should be exposed to the stories of citizens like Jessie Thackery, E.B. Henderson, Howard Herman and others. This is why I am calling upon our community to come together to create a permanent home for our Little City’s civic heroes: a Falls Church Hall of Fame. Just like how the mission of the Baseball Hall of Fame is to “preserve the sport’s history, honor excellence within the game and make a connection between the generations of people who enjoy baseball,” the Falls Church Hall of Fame’s mission will be to: “preserve the city’s history, honor excellence in civic action and character and make a connection between the generations of people who call Falls Church home.”

D.C. living wage campaign spotlighted in Post

The Washington Post ran a story on the D.C. living wage movement that we at Time for a Raise are part of:

States and municipalities across the country are leading a localized push to raise the minimum wage, driven largely by Democrats, who see an opening to appeal to working-class Americans at a time of growing inequity.

Efforts in Congress to raise the national minimum wage above $7.25 an hour have stalled. But numerous local governments — including those of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, and the District — are forging ahead, in some cases voting to dramatically increase the pay of low-wage workers.

Pete Davis, an analyst with the Center for Study of Responsive Law, a think tank headed by liberal activist Ralph Nader, said a lack of uniformity is a poor reason not to take action. “The D.C. area has one of the highest costs of living in the nation, so it makes sense that they are going to lead the charge on fighting back on inequality,” he said.

Elrich said he is also fine with pricey urban areas having different minimum wages than more rural ones, where the cost of living is lower. “What’s right for Montgomery or the D.C. region as a whole may not be what’s right for another jurisdiction,” he said.

The political ramifications of the Washington jurisdictions’ effort are likely to be clearer than the economic ones.

A local D.C. economy already under intense scrutiny for its ties to the federal government will be even more so as partisan observers try to determine whether every job lost or gained relates to some of the nation’s highest minimum-wage requirements.

And Davis said he sees the effort as the start of something bigger, especially for urban areas: “When a region like D.C., Prince George’s and Montgomery can do it, and they are successful, people are going to start to realize you can do it in New York and Chicago and Dallas and across the country.”

A Public Project Program for George Mason High School

In 2013, I launched the George Mason High School Public Project Program initiative in Falls Church, Virginia.  It is an effort to “establish a Public Project Program at George Mason that make the imagining, developing and implementing of a public project an institutionalized part of each high school student’s educational experience.”  Here’s the launch video:

A much-thicker outline of the program proposal is located here: GMHS Public Project Program Description.

Fortunately, the essay below, which helped launch the George Mason High School Public Project Program initiative, was originally published in the Falls Church News-Press on August 15, 2013:

“Democracy must be reborn every generation and education is its midwife” rings as true today as it did when John Dewey penned it a century ago. If my generation does not develop the democratic values, civic skills, and public-minded determination to steward and grow our civic culture, then our public life will assuredly wither.

Fortunately, we have a civic culture in Falls Church schools and, as I recall, every individual in the school system was always willing to help students with civic development. However, at the high school level, we had very little institutionalized structure for developing the skills of civic creativity and public action in the way that we, say, had such a structure for English or Math. Mason’s single course on Government is not enough: learning how a bill becomes a law or why the 7th amendment matters in a classroom setting is not the same as developing the hands-on skills, experience and commitment that is needed for students to become the confident, public-minded, problem-solving civic creators that our Little City and big nation desperately needs them to be! Many Falls Churchians raised similar imperatives at the 2013 FCCPS Community Visioning: the need for adult mentorship, tighter bonds between the school and community, and project-based learning.

In response to these goals and in the spirit of Superintendent Jones’ commitment to community visioning, I have an idea: A George Mason High School Public Project Program that makes the imagining, developing and implementing of a public project an institutionalized part of each GMHS student’s civic education experience. This will involve: (1) making “the creation of a public project” a new graduation requirement; (2) developing a cross-curricular Public Project Program for the implementation of this new requirement; and (3) organizing community engagement with the program. Each student will: pick a public project to work on early in 11th grade; recruit an adult civic mentor and underclassmen teammates; learn how to articulate ideas in English class; learn how to place their project into historical context in History class; investigate the ins-and-outs of the problem they are solving; and spend their final two years of high school working to make their vision a reality.

Each student’s project has to be a concrete project they initiate. Volunteering at a soup kitchen does not count – this is not a service hours program – but starting the student group for the local soup kitchen does count. Attending city council meetings does not count – this is about more than just civic participation; it’s about student leadership, too! – but writing a serious report to the council on a public issue does count. Examples of public projects include: organizing a group to paint a public mural (as one Class of 2007 student did); proposing a safety initiative (as Marta Eckert-Mills did in creating the bike path bridge over Broad Street); setting up solar panels on the school (as James Peterson ’08 did); and opening up a local chapter of a national movement (as Matt Abel ’12 and others did with Transition Falls Church).

I anticipate some questions. First, how do we fit this in? One proposal could be to house the program in a class, as TJ High School does with its required student project. Some might insist we make such a class voluntary, to which I ask: “when we decided that foreign language learning or physical education were important to us, why did we choose to make them mandatory?” If you make civic creativity an elective, it will only attract those who are already exposed to civic creativity.

Second, wouldn’t there be too many projects? Students could work together or join an existing project in town, as long as their contribution is a discrete creation within the initiative they join. Finally, isn’t mandating service problematic? This is better than mandatory service hours, because it is a student-directed, integrated project experience on which you work long term.

We – Superintendent Jones, Principal Byrd, and the whole FCCPS community – have a chance to come out of our Community Visioning with a concrete initiative that: provides students a unique, self-driven lesson in commitment, leadership, creativity and resilience; makes every student a civic leader; and weaves a tighter bond between GMHS and the wider community through civic mentoring. Realizing such a vision is easier said than done – it is going to take a robust conversation among all stakeholders. However, I hope we can get started this year on the path towards making this dream – a public project for every student, a life lesson in civic creativity, and democracy reborn in a new generation – a reality at George Mason!

If you are excited, check out to find out more information and sign our petition to Superintendent Jones. Email to get involved.


Washington Post Letter to the Editor on Walmart’s poverty wage regime

While working for Ralph Nader’s Time for a Raise campaign, I had a wonky letter to the editor published in the Washington Post today regarding Walmart’s poverty wage regime:

In the July 11 front-page article “Council approves ‘living wage’ bill,” The Post placed front and center the claim that the District’s Large Retailer Accountability Act requires big-box-store employers to pay “a 50 percent premium over the city’s minimum wage,” a phrasing that could have left readers wondering whether the act goes too far. It is important to note, however, that the act calls not for a $12.50 wage but rather a $12.50 wage minus benefits, stating clearly: “The prorated hourly cost of any benefits that a large retailer chooses to provide an employee may be credited toward payment of the minimum hourly compensation required under this act.”

If Wal-Mart gave its District employees the health benefits they deserve, their minimum wage under the act would amount to significantly less than a “50 percent premium” over the current wage. Within the limits of the act, Wal-Mart can pay an hourly wage less than $12.50 if it offers its District workers, as the act states, “benefits related to health care, retirement security, disability, training and education, or paid leave.”

Peter Davis, Falls Church

BostInno on CommonPlace

BostInno, a Boston innovation blog, just spotlighted CommonPlace:

Founded by former Harvard roommates Peter Davis and Max Novendstern, CommonPlace was inspired by Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone. In the book, Putnam highlights how disconnected we’ve become from our family, friends and neighbors, warning that our stock of social capital and community connections have drastically decreased.

At the end of the book, Putnam challenges young people to invent new ways to get involved in their community. And that call to action was just what Davis and Novendstern needed to build the foundation of CommonPlace.

“We were sitting on that challenge,” Davis says. “The Boston startup scene was taking off, the iPad came out, The Social Network was being filmed.” The timing couldn’t have been better, as more people began thinking of college students as those who had the power to create these various networks and platforms. “We were thinking community needs to be revitalized,” Davis admits, and they wanted to use “the tools of the Internet” to do just that.

They launched the first CommonPlace in Davis’s hometown of Falls Church, Virginia. Through the platform, community members can create a profile and post conversation starters, requests and events, propose a meet-up or publicize a service or organization. Other members in the community can then respond publicly to any thread or click on the poster’s profile and send a private message.

‘Bring in the Nerds’

Seth Riddley had an op-ed in The Crimson on tech-minded innovators, Bring in the Nerds:

I’m calling it now: Within forty years, the American people will put a computer science major in the Oval Office. Twenty years ago, around the time most current Harvard College students were born, this prediction would have seemed unlikely at best. But, now, as a generation that came of age alongside the personal computer transitions into seats of power, it is inevitable.

He was nice to mention Eric Hysen me as a tech-minded student creators:

Off the top of my head, I can think of several prominent student leaders just here in Harvard College who represent the type of person who may be leading the United States in the future. One is Peter D. Davis ’12, who started Harvard Thinks Big, and, with Max D. Novendstern ’12, founded CommonPlace, a Web site for civic engagement.  He has been a reasonable voice of the Occupy movement, and he exemplifies the kind of computer-literate leader that will become the norm in the next decades. Another is Eric Hysen ’11, former vice-president of the Undergraduate Council, computer science concentrator, and current software engineer at Google. On campus, he was the most efficient and methodical leader I’ve seen here, taking the problem solving skills one learns in CS and applying them everywhere. Leaders like Eric and Pete will become more common in the coming decades, as it is natural for members of our generation, who grew up with computers, to apply technological solutions to age-old problems.

Harvard Thinks Big 3

Harvard Thinks Big has reached its third year. The Crimson covered the event:

The audience in Sanders Theatre heard speeches on topics ranging from symmetry in Beethoven’s music, to incarceration in the U.S., to genetically modified food on Thursday evening, all in the space of an 80-minute event.

At the third annual Harvard Thinks Big forum, eight esteemed Harvard professors addressed a packed house for just ten minutes each in a whirlwind tour of big ideas in academia.373067_314614091913883_1158655183_n

We had a great Motown band to play in between the acts, too:

Peter D. Davis ’12, who hosted the event, said, “My goal was for this to solidify Harvard Thinks Big as a tradition, for it to be something that people look forward to, something that makes Harvard, Harvard.”

He added, “Like the Oscars, we like to add something new.”

That added touch at this year’s iteration of the event was performances by the student band The Nostalgics throughout the evening.

“In my three years at Harvard, Harvard Thinks Big is one of my favorite events,” said K. C. Jaski ’13. “Harvard Thinks Big is like an intellectual rock concert, complete with inspiration, goose bumps, and great music.”

The Harvard Political Review had a rundown:

Doug Melton shared with the crowd how we could create better, healthier bodies if we began to target and stimulate stem cells.  In the case of muscle stem cells, he suggests that we simply find ways to remove or reduce the influence of the inhibitor that helps to control the cell’s growth.  Similarly, he argued that we should be looking to find food that will help to stimulate nerve stem cells that can help us grow smarter.  Making stronger, smarter, and generally better people is how Professor Melton thinks Big.

Eleanor Duckworth presented the topic “Confusion, Play, and Postponing Certainty” in which she shared with the community gathered in Sanders her thoughts on education and how children should properly be taught in school.  She not only condemned teaching to the test, but also argued that “students are being deprived of a good education.”  Furthermore, she was able to demonstrate through an example of examining poetry that what matters in the classroom is that students are constantly thinking and supplying their own ideas.  Teachers may supply their own.  But their main role is simply to lead students through thought processes.  She encouraged Harvard to think big on education.

Nicholas Christakis gave a short lecture about “How Social Networks are like Carbon.”  The professor and Pfoho House Master made the point that “connections matter” in every aspect of life, and he talked about how connections between people have an effect on the happiness of others or even the success of a Broadway show.  In the end, Kristakis drove home the point by comparing graphite and diamonds, both made of carbon.  Though they are both made of carbon, they have very different properties.  Thus, he made the point that how these elements appear collectively changes the properties that define it.  He encouraged us to apply this principle to our daily lives.

Daniel Lieberman gave his talk on “Making the World Smaller,” in which he argued for the return of an old Harvard tradition which existed from 1920-1970, a four hour per week fitness requirement.  Lieberman pointed out that obesity has been and is becoming a much greater problem for the United States and the world.  And so, in light of the fact that we cannot simply change our biology, and because drugs, therapies, and education are often not enough, the single best tool that we have to fight obesity is coercion.  Lieberman said that “If we can’t change our biology, we must think about changing our environment.”  To do so, Lieberman advocated for the return of the fitness requirements for Harvard undergraduates.

Donhee Ham gave a rousing lecture on what he called “broken symmetry.”  By demonstrating his own piano talents through per-recorded videos, Professor Ham was able to demonstrate for us the symmetry that we often experience in life, particularly in music, and how wonderful it usually is.  But then he also was able to demonstrate how asymmetry also could be used to create an even more profound outcome, as demonstrated through a photo of Maryland Monroe whose beauty was enhanced by a mole on just one side of her face and through Beethoven’s Third Symphony which was very fiery and quite pleasing to listen to.  And through these demonstrations, he educated the crowd on his grand theory of broken symmetry.

220724_1268777_630x418Jill Lepore took on what was dubbed “a very modest topic.”  Her presentation was on the meaning of life.  Throughout her segment, Lepore brought us through the history of board games about life with her starting point being Checkers, created by Milton Bradley who was a Harvard drop-out.  This original checkers set had a board with half of the squares containing different events in the typical life of a person starting from infancy.  She compared this to older games like the Indian “Game of Knowledge,” which later became “Snakes and Ladders,” and later “Chutes and Ladders.”  And she brought us to the many evolutions of the game called “Life,” for which the main goal is to make money.  In the end, she concluded that board games have changed as our conception of life has changed.  And she thought big by challenging us to think of what our board game of life might look like.

Stephen Geenblatt presented to those gathered in Sanders Theater his thoughts about “Speaking with the Dead.”  By giving us the examples of so many hundreds of words that Oxford Dictionary credits to Shakespeare, particularly in Hamlet, Professor Greenblatt was able to covey how important it was to connect with those that have passed on through that which they say, write, and create.  It is through literary works much like Hamlet that we are able to see the dead more clearly and come to understand them as people more fully.

Finally, Kaia Stern gave an exhilarating speech entitled “Act Big: Dare to See.”  In this final segment of the night, Professor Stern recounted for the audience her many experiences in prisons and the kinds of dehumanizing behaviors that happen there and all around the world.  She even expressed her concern that today more than one in  thirty-one people are imprisoned in the United States.   Stern may have been one of the most compelling of all of the speakers in her call for Harvard students to make a difference and to stop such injustices from happening.  She very boldly stated at the end: “What will you do in the face of dehumanizing behavior?”

Here’s what I told them about the purpose of the event:

Current Harvard Senior Peter Davis came up with the idea of Harvard Thinks Big just three years ago, and it has been a success ever since.  Davis says that he believes that professors should share their talents and ideas with Harvard students.  He sees Harvard Thinks Big as an opportunity for students to think about the problems of our day in a whole new light.  In a sense, he wants Harvard students to think big.

As Harvard President Drew Faust stated in a video introduction to the show, “Harvard faculty are heirs to the great innovators of Harvard University.”  President Faust was spot on when she called on the faculty at Harvard to be as innovative as possible and to engage in the kind of grand thinking that Harvard is renowned for.

Peter Davis put it best when he said that the goal of Harvard Thinks Big is to bring these grand “ideas back to the center of undergraduate life.”

Here’s the original promo video for the event:

And here’s one of the more popular talks, by Professor Jill Lepore on the history of the board game Life: