SUPPORTING CITIZENSHIP EDUCATION

Another important way in which we can uphold our commitment to democracy via public schools is by supporting and working toward strong citizenship education. To keep democracy functioning well, we need our future generations of students to develop the habits, skills, and knowledge sets that encourage their informed and active political and civic participation. In order for future citizens to be able to invoke the rights we enjoy today, we have a responsibility to provide the conditions for good citizenship that will enable them to develop, revise, and exercise their own rights in the future. Schools are a key place where children develop responsibility themselves. Hence, we have a responsibility to provide the type of citizenship education that will nurture their aptitude for responsibility so that our political system continues to flourish and our economic and social systems benefit as well.

While I will say much more about what I believe such a citizenship education might look like in chapters eight and nine, we should work together to shape the goals and content of citizenship education. Deliberation is important as we propose and consider an array of viable images of good citizenry and approaches to achieving those goals. We might host or attend such deliberations. We can work to shape goals and content directly in a school alongside the school board or with teachers, or outside the school by influencing the writing of social studies standards, textbooks, and other materials that impact teaching for citizenship. We can also work to ensure that the educational goals that result from our deliberations are achieved. We might engage in coproduction to address civic or political problems by giving our own time, knowledge, or resources to support classroom activities aimed at solving those problems, which may include coming in as a guest speaker or arranging for field trips to noteworthy civic or political sites.

This coproduction may be a meaningful contribution given recent changes in social studies education, including its time allotment and pedagogical approach. Nationally, the average weekly amount of instructional time spent on social studies in elementary schools has decreased by at least seventy-five minutes, a number that is even larger in the nation’s lowest-performing schools, where testing in math and reading is given more instructional time.8 And at the high school level, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Civics Assessment, there have been significant decreases in the number of community members that come into schools to discuss ideas or events, as well as decreases in nontextbook materials being used to facilitate citizenship education (such as videos, magazines, maps, or political car- toons).9 Despite these troubling changes to social studies classrooms, a study of 90,000 teens found that classrooms that encourage “respectful discussions of civic and political issues” and have “explicit focus on learning about voting and elections” produce students with greater civic knowledge, civic engagement, and voting rates.10 These findings suggest that citizenship education can have some measurable effects. Perhaps those effects may be even stronger when bolstered by coproduction.

Citizenship education is also a matter of justice insofar as it equips students with the agency needed to wisely fight for their own rights and well-being as well as those of others. The decreases of time and resources in social studies classrooms are often greatest in schools with the worst test scores—in many cases, schools that tend to serve large numbers of poor children of color. These are children who may be in most need of the skills and knowledge to advocate on their own behalf. Or, as described by Joseph Kahne and Ellen Middaugh, who base their observations on nationwide data and interviews from children in California,

Far from drawing on civic education as a potential tool for ameliorating civic and political inequality, schools are making matters worse. In a nutshell, the very individuals who have the least influence on political processes—the people whose voices schools most need to inform and support in order to promote democratic equality—often get fewer school-based opportunities to develop their civic capacities and commitments than other students.11

These poor children are not only unjustly being denied good citizenship education, but with each minute of social studies subtracted from their school day, they are being denied access to the skills and knowledge they need to secure their own justice and equality. We have a responsibility to ensure adequate and equitable citizenship education for all children out of an ethical care for others and to satisfy the threshold needed for all students to participate in and perpetuate democracy themselves.

Part of that citizenship education entails determining, naming, and passing on habits and values that are central to democratic life. As Jeffery Henig explains,

Democracy depends on its citizens to play two key roles. The first and most familiar role for a citizen is as an intelligent and informed arbiter of issues. The second role is as a protector of values and ideas, but it is not true that all values and ideas are created equal. A few values are central and legitimate because they are prerequisites if democratic institutions and processes are to be sustained. These values include respect for minority opinion, a commitment to freedom of expression, and an allegiance to reason over unreason ... Citizens have a responsibility not only to acknowledge these values, but to mobilize to defend them if they are under attack.12

Some of these values are under attack as they are being squeezed out of school curricula and divorced from our expectations of schools. Kahne and Westheimer provide a telling example. They present the following two headlines and ask which one has never appeared in a newspaper:

  • 1. “Capital City Students Show No Gain in Reading, Math—Governor Threatens Takeover”
  • 2. “Middletown School to be Taken Over by State for Failures to Develop Democratic Citizens”13

Of course, the second never happened and it seems absurd for us to even consider relative to the first case, given our national focus on math and reading. This reveals not only how values and priorities shape what is taught in schools, how they are assessed, and when it matters enough to warrant state intervention, but also how those values and priorities now have become internalized and normalized, operating without explicit consideration or questioning. We have a responsibility, however, to step up to ensure that the values being taught reflect the needs of a robust democracy and that they are being adequately addressed in schools. We will look more closely at what some of these values might be today in chapter eight.

 
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