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Yesterday, Secretary of Education King spoke for quite awhile on civic education and its importance in helping students become the kinds of citizens they should be.

For me, as someone with a passion for civic education and a firm belief in the importance of developing civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions, this was a positive speech. Some of the highlights:

We need to continue to be ever-vigilant to make sure that this right is not taken away. However, as I would tell my students when I was teaching, voting, as important as it is, is only one responsibility of citizenship. The strength of our democracy depends on all of us as Americans understanding our history and the Constitution and how the government works at every level. Becoming informed and thoughtful about local, state and national issues, getting involved in solving problems in our schools, communities, states and nationally. Recognizing that solutions to the complex issues our nation faces today all require compromise. Being willing to think beyond our own needs and wants and to embrace our obligations to the greater good.

Here at the FJCC, we cannot stress enough how important it is that we as citizens understand that we need to do MORE than just vote, no matter your position on issues. In order to be the best citizen that you can you be, you must become involved and engaged within your community. Organizationally, the FJCC has brought on board an Action Civics Coordinator to begin the process of working with students, teachers, schools, and districts in a civics program that moves beyond just civic knowledge and towards a refinement of the other civic competencies that Secretary King stresses here.

Today, all 50 states and the District of Columbia make some civics instruction a graduation requirement. Over the past couple of years, 14 states have also begun requiring students to pass a version of the citizenship exam to get a diploma. That could be a good start, but it is civics light. Knowing the first three words of the preamble to the Constitution, or being able to identify at least one branch of government, is worthwhile, but it’s not enough to equip people to carry out the duties of citizenship.

Without a doubt, this emphasizes again the importance of skills in dispositions as well as knowledge in creating a well-rounded and engaged citizen! It also reinforces the concerns that some have raised about the value of the naturalization test as a measure of civic education and preparedness.

And ask teachers and principals and superintendents to help your students learn to be problem solvers who can grapple with challenging issues such as how to improve their schools, homelessness, air and water pollution or the tensions between police and communities of color. It is also critical that these conversations not be partisan. Civic education and engagement is not a Democratic Party or a Republican Party issue. Solutions to problems can and should be rooted in different philosophies of government. We have to make sure classrooms welcome and celebrate these different perspectives.

I recognize that this could lead to uncomfortable conversations and that teachers will need support and training to foster these conversations in productive ways. Principals will need to be courageous and back their teachers up. Superintendents and school boards will need to make sure their communities understand what they are trying to accomplish.

This is so very important. Discussion of current events and controversial issues within a deliberative framework generally has a positive impact on student civic engagement and awareness of issues, as well as willingness to engage in problem solving. Recent work by Hess and McAvoy explore ways in which teachers and students in ideologically different communities approach this, and both the research and the suggestions can be quite beneficial as we contemplate how to safely approach difficult issues.

So what are the elements of a robust and relevant civic education? First, students need knowledge. They need to know the Constitution and the legislative process. They also need to understand history. Our students ought to be truly familiar with the primary sources that have shaped our nation’s history, with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, with Sojourner Truth’s, “Ain’t I a Woman” speech, and Dr. King’s letter from a Birmingham jail, to name a few.
But it’s not enough to be able to quote from these documents. They need to know why they remain relevant today. They need to be able to put themselves into other shoes and to appreciate the different perspectives that have shaped our nation’s history.

Well, there is the need for civic knowledge. But is there anything else kids need in order to become the citizens this nation needs them to be?

Beyond knowledge, students also need civic skills. They should be able to write persuasive letters to the editor, or to the mayor, or to a member of Congress, and learn to speak at public meetings. In addition, they should have opportunities to do democracy. When I was teaching, I had my seniors do research projects tackling local problems in the community. I can recall students who worked with a local nonprofit to end the dumping of garbage in their neighborhood, to support urban agriculture projects, and to advocate for more affordable housing.

Ah, there is is! Civic skills! They have to know what to DO with that knowledge! Is there anything else, Dr. King?

We also want our students to learn to look beyond their own interests to their enlightened self interest in the common good. I recently visited Flint, Michigan, and while I may never live in Flint, I recognized it’s in my interest to make sure that children and families in Flint and every other city in the country have safe water to drink and an opportunity to fulfill their potential. Service both helps students understand the challenges in the community, helps them understand themselves and also helps them understand the importance of the common good.

And THERE is is! We need to ensure that students develop those civic dispositions that help them make a difference for the common good! And remember, this is not a partisan issue. No matter the perspective, we want citizens to feel as though they CAN make a difference and that they have the ability to engage in the practice of citizenship!

But the biggest and most important outcome of all is that high quality civic education prepares students to help the nation solve difficult, challenging, complex issues and make it a better, more equitable place to live with genuine opportunity for all. Civic education must be an essential part of a well-rounded education. It must be at the foundation of the future, not only of our economy but of our democracy.

Our schools need to be about more than preparing kids for a job. They need to be about preparing them to be citizens. Another reason we should consider how the C3 Framework can shape our standards, our curriculum, and our instruction.

It was such a pleasure to hear and see strong advocacy for civic education that goes beyond simple rote learning. As this current election season suggests, there is such a great need for building those civic competencies and considering our schools as more than just the place where we send our kids to the spend the day.

You can take a look at the transcript of Dr. King’s remarks here. 

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