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 (www.tinyurl.com/GMHSPPP), 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 FCCPSCivicEducation@gmail.com!

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 www.GMHSPublicProject.org to find out more information and sign our petition to Superintendent Jones. Email GMHSPublicProject@gmail.com to get involved.