“To prepare all citizens to become responsible members of a democratic society”

“To develop socialization and citizenship skills in children”

“Preparing students for responsible, productive citizenship and imbuing them with values common to one democratic society”

These similar phrases were developed by diverse groups of citizens in three communities — Berwyn, Illinois; Chicago; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, respectively — to describe what they saw as a basic mission of public education.

These conclusions emerged from 72 citizens’ forums held in all regions of the country in 1996 through 1998 by the National PTA, Phi Delta Kappa, and the Center on Education Policy. Their purpose was to encourage local residents to discuss the purposes of public education, the effectiveness of their schools, and ways to improve public education

The conversations, which lasted three to four hours, included parents of public school and home-schooled children, Catholic school administrators, law enforcement officers, religious leaders, business people, and many others. Public school educators were limited in number so their views would not overwhelm the opinions of others. Discussions were held in small groups so that everyone had a chance to speak. To ensure the independence of this venture, funding came from charitable foundations.

Strikingly, the participants in every meeting in every part of the country concurred that there were two main purposes of public education: to prepare students for further education and employment and to prepare them to be good citizens. Citizens at various meetings came up with slightly different wording and combinations of purposes, but they consistently agreed on those two purposes.

Now, fifteen years later, public schools are focusing on the first purpose, preparing students for further education and employment. Sadly, the second purpose, preparing students for citizenship, is being lost amid the emphasis on the first.

Civic education has been the traditional means of teaching students about democracy. Students learn about the role of government in American society, what good citizenship means, which skills are needed to be good citizens, and how to promote toleration and respect for others.

But civic learning has been increasingly pushed aside, according to the Center for Civic Education. Until the 1960s, according to a paper by the Center’s John Hale and Mark Molli, three civics and government courses were common in American high schools. Two of them (“civics” and “problems of democracy”) explored the role of citizens and encouraged students to discuss current issues. Today those courses are very rare, as is professional development in civics instruction for teachers. In New Jersey, for example, only 39 percent of districts had a required course in civic education, and just 35 percent of districts offered in-service training opportunities for teachers in civic learning. In Arizona, 53 percent of public school teachers had never been given in-service professional development in civic learning.

What remains is a course on “American government” that usually spends little time on how people can, and why they should, participate as citizens. This course is usually offered in twelfth grade –too little, too late, especially for the large number of students who drop out before their senior year and may benefit the most from understanding their rights and responsibilities as citizens.

In the elementary grades, CCE notes in the same paper, civic learning used to be woven throughout the curriculum. In 2010, less than half of 4th grade teachers reported emphasizing key topics of civic education to a moderate or large extent, according to the most recent NAEP civics assessment. Not surprisingly, only 27 percent of 4th graders, 22 percent of 8th graders, and 24 percent of 12th graders performed at or above the “proficient” level on the 2010 NAEP civics assessment. Only 52 percent of 4th graders could correctly identify the main idea in a summary of the introduction to the Declaration of Independence.

The large influx of immigrants, including many from countries that are not fully or even partly democratic, creates a special urgency for civic education. The terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon by two immigrant youths reminds us of the challenges involved in instilling democratic values and tolerance among immigrants from every part of the globe.

In June the CCE will release a new civic education curriculum that takes advantage of the interactive technology while still being well-grounded in content. Chuck Quigley, executive director of the Center, drew on his decades of experience to update the teaching in this area.

Thus, the public endorses fostering citizenship as a basic purpose of public education, assessments document the need for civic education, and the teaching material is available. Yet schools are not placing a high value on this subject. The goal of strengthening our nation’s economic competitiveness by improving math, science, and language arts education has overshadowed the need to teach children the values fundamental to preserving democracy.

Politicians and elected officials ought to understand the importance of civic education more than anyone, but most stand by silently as civic education is downgraded. That is not the case with other disciplines. Professionals whose jobs involve math and science advocate for more time in the school day for their specialties, but people who have devoted their careers to government and politics are generally not vocal in advocating for civic education.

We all must remind ourselves that students need to be taught what it means to make a democracy work. Otherwise, we imperil the very existence of our democratic society.


This blog written by Jack Jennings first appeared on May 5, 2013 in the Huffington Post.