The Failure of U.S. Schools as “Guardians of Democracy”

“If 50 percent of a school district‘s graduates could not read, we‘d fire the superintendent. Yet regularly less than half our graduates vote. In our ―accountability era, no superintendent has been fired for failing in this core mission of our ―’guardian of democracy.’ ”

The  quote comes from a paper written by Michael Johanek in 2011 about the century-old history of civic education in the U.S.. However,  since the early 1980s business-minded state and federal reformers “re-purposed”  K-12 schools into building  a stronger, globally competitive economy through higher academic standards, increased testing, and tougher accountability for student results; the traditional goal of civic education has become a “Second Hand Rose.” That has been the case for the past three decades.

Relegated to applause lines in graduation talks, making students into citizens who are engaged in their communities gets occasionally resuscitated by national commissions, occasional reports and books, and pronouncements from top officials (see here, here, and here), but the sad truth is that until the dominant  rationale for schooling the young shifts from its current economic purpose to its historic role as “guardian of democracy,” only   fleeting references to the civic purpose of schooling will occur.

I do not know whether such a shift will occur in the immediate future. I surely want it to occur.  Trimming back the prevailing economic purpose for tax-supported schools and correcting the current imbalance in preparing children and youth for civic participation is long overdue. Consumerism  has enveloped public schools over the past three decades. The role of schools to teach democratic values and skills and insure that students have opportunities to practice the skills and values in their communities has been shoved aside. Were such a political change to occur,  it will be gradual as more and more parents, taxpayers, and policymakers come to see the harmful imbalance among the multiple aims for schools in a commerce-driven democracy. Were that political shift in purposes to occur, the crucial question of what kind of a citizen does the nation want will re-emerge as it had in earlier generations of school reformers.

That question of what kind of citizen has been around since tax-supported public schools were founded two centuries ago. No one answer has sufficed then or now because there are different ways of viewing a “good” citizen (see here and here). Nor has any answer in the 1920s, 1940s, 1960s–when schools were expected to prepare students to participate and engage in the community–sufficed. Arguments over the kinds of citizenship that should be practiced in and out of school, the threadbare quality of the programs, and frequent conflicts over whether teachers should deal with controversial topics within the school day arose time and again (see here, here and here)

Professors Joel Westheimer and Joe Kahne, knowledgeable about the history of civic education in U.S. and Canadian schools, have been wrestling with these different views and have come up with a conceptual map laying out three types of citizen: personally responsible, participatory, and social justice oriented  (WhatKindOfCitizenAERJ).   Westheimers recent book, What Kind of Citizen, summarizes these different views.

Personally Responsible Citizen

The core assumption for this kind of citizen is that to “solve social problems and improve society, citizens must have good character; they must be honest, responsible, and law-abiding members of the community.” Such a citizen would, for example, donate blood, recycle, and contribute food to a food drive.

Participatory Citizen

The core assumption here is that “to solve problems and improve society, citizens must participate and take leadership positions within established systems and community structures.” Such a citizen would, for example vote, serve on juries, form a street Neighborhood Watch to combat crime,  help organize a food drive, join the town’s recycling committee, and help register voters.

Justice-oriented Citizen

For this kind of a citizen the basic assumption is that “to solve social problems and improve society, citizens must question, debate, and change established systems and structures that reproduce patterns of injustice over time.” This kind of citizen would analyze the current structures and culture that create, say, hunger, homelessness or an epidemic of drug overdoses; the person would write letters, meet with local officials, and join committees seeking out ways of solving these problems.

For decades, these different views of a citizen have been embedded in the curriculum, especially in the 1930s and 1960s, and taught in schools. One kind of citizen, however, is not better than the other. In a democracy such divergent views of  citizenship are normal. Of course, these differences also lead to the larger question of what kind of democratic society do parents, voters, and taxpayers want their schools to work toward. No such debate, unfortunately, exists now.

But some public and private schools over the decades, surviving reform wave after wave, have practiced their version of preparing children and youth for citizenship. Often mixes of the above views of citizenship has emerged over time.

A few examples in 2016 are:

Sudbury Valley School–1968 (Framingham, MA)

Jefferson County Open School–1969 (Colorado)

El Puente–1982 (New York City)

Mission Hill--1997 (Boston, MA)

Bell Gardens High School –pp. 22-23 of report and here (Los Angeles, CA)

Westside Village Magnet School (Bend, Oregon)

That such schools (and these are a sampling) enact different forms of citizenship laid out above by Westheimer and Kahne is a proof point that schools enacting democratic practices exist. In these schools, student exercise responsible behavior in and out of school, participate in and out of school in various civic institutions from restorative justice programs to community service, and analyze causes of socioeconomic problems while working to reduce their effects in their communities. These schools, with much variation among them, embody different answers to the question: What kind of  citizen?

But such schools are scarce in the current market-driven reforms harnessing schools to the economy. Whether a swell of popular opinion will rise and crest into political action to reassert the fundamental civic aim for tax-supported public school, I cannot predict. But I sure hope it will.







Filed under Reforming schools

15 responses to “The Failure of U.S. Schools as “Guardians of Democracy”

  1. In my state and I think this may be true for others, the role of schools in civics had been reduced, due to state testing. Social studies has not been a tested subject since the inception of state testing. As a result in most elementary and middle schools, it gets folded into literacy which means a loss of time on content and depth. Thus, in many cases, a student may not have a single social studies course or adequate exposure until they reach high school. Then, of course, depending on their college major, they may not see it again. I don’t see that the fault of the school system but more symptomatic of NCLB and likely ESSA.

  2. Many years ago I served with some Australian troops. Voting was required by law so they kept up on their civics. Politics was a hot topic among them and they knew a lot about their candidates. I do not see the same concern in the US.

    • larrycuban

      Compulsory voting occurs in some nations. Have doubts about such laws. Didn’t know about Australia. Thanks for the comment, Garth.

  3. David

    I teach civics in my school (for 10 years now, to HS juniors). We focus a lot on social justice across the curriculum, but in my class, what I find is that students are often not equipped with the content knowledge to understand the background of complex situations. I’m teaching this summer and just today my students could not identify Ukraine or the Korean peninsula on a map. They had little recollection of their lessons on Islam from freshman year. I think that we need to focus more on getting information to stick over the long term (which is why cognitive load theory appeals to me) and to encourage students to read on their own rather than play Pokemon Go. And maybe…just maybe develop the habit of reading the newspaper rather than getting their news from social media.

  4. Peter Schrag

    Larry: After disparaging decades of commission complaints about systemic education failures — Sputnik, Nation at Risk, etc. — no the Russians didn’t win the cold War, the Germans and Japanese didn’t beat our economic brains out — I’m beginning to think there was something to it. How else to explain Trumpism? Anyway, I agree with you. Cheers.

  5. I reject the premise of this column that back in the good ol’ days, schools did a much better job of preparing students for citizenship. Looking at the turnout figures for the past century, the numbers have been floating between ~50% to ~60% with no discernable pattern, even as we’ve dramatically increased the voter roles and expanded enfranchisement: Millennials, for all their supposed character flaws, seem to be much more engaged and purpose-driven than prior generations. And while I agree that NCLB accountability for ELA and math crowded out some social studies in elementary grades, I also see the CCSS bringing much more project-based learning, non-fiction reading, and real-world embedded instruction than in the past. Finally, the column characterizes the push for standards and accountability as driven by business interests and an economic model of schooling, but my own inspiration for seeking a different model for public education has been equity: we were too complacent with unequal and inadequate schooling for vast swaths of our students, and we need information and transparency in order to motivate greater investment and more sophisticated approaches for all kids. Recent increases in graduation rates are heartening, but we have much work to do on many fronts. The recalibration to reduce testing but not eliminate it is a positive evolution…let’s keep getting better.

    • larrycuban

      If the post suggested a “golden age” of civic education, I erred. No such time existed. Critiques of how schools approached teaching citizenship over the past three-quarters of a century were common and frequent, given the different answers to the question of “what kind of citizen?” Moreover, from time to time, exposes of how little students knew about the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights, how local, state, and federal governments worked and interacted–I could go on, but you see my point. Whatever your personal inspiration for “seeking a different model for public education,” Laura, the past 30 years are rich in evidence that the civic and business communities were as one in pushing public schools to prepare students with the testable knowledge and academic skills that would help this society economically grow and thrive. Thank you for your comment.

  6. Tom Timar

    Peter is right, how can individuals make wise political choices when they know nothing but what they hear on Fox News and talk-show rantings and ravings. Horace Mann and Thomas Jefferson would be in a deep state of despair if they were alive today. Our K-12 social science and history curriculum is mishmash, bereft of ideas. Good instruction in those areas is the rare exception.

  7. Leon Botstein, President of Bard College, published this in the Spring of 2015
    This remains Job 1 of American Public Education. I agree that consumerism has subsumed American Teens. Hypocritically, corporate America (read: adults) has placed American teens in the cross-hairs of a non-stop marketing campaign that takes their money and gives back nothing of substance or value. Think: cellphone companies built their business model on kids and the monies they could get from their parents.
    Larry, I’m happy that you’re adding your voice to this mission.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment, Robert. There are many of us, like Botstein, who seek civic engagement as a renewed mission of public schools. The avalanche of reform to make schools an arm of the economy–going on since the early 1980s–has surely buried those of us like yourself who seek citizen building as part of the portfolio of public schools.

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