Monday, September 19, 2011

Guardians and Pathways

By interesting coincidence, a couple of reports relating to civic participation were released on September 15 in different parts of the world. First, a collaborative in the United Kingdom called Pathways through Participation released a report called “Pathways through Participation: What creates and sustains active citizenship?” A few hours later, as part of the 2011 National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC) in Philadelphia, “Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools” was released by a partnership that included NCoC, The Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools and CIRCLE, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

The “Guardian” report is an update of a 2003 report called “The Civic Mission of Schools.” That report kicked of a national Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools (CMS). Having been involved in the CMS Campaign in Colorado, and having used the report a lot in my work, I was surprised to find that the new report is not much different than the old one. The same six practices are recommended for K-12 education, except now they are called “proven practices” rather than “promising practices.” The proven practices include instruction in government, discussion of current events and controversial issues, simulations, service-learning, extracurricular activities and student participation in school governance.

There is some new research to back up these practices, and the report also contains a few new policy recommendations. For example, institutions of higher education are urged to require a civics course for all students. The report also recommends that states include civic learning in their state assessments and accountability measures, and that state policies support alternative assessments such as portfolios and group projects.

I’m not sure why this group thought it was a good idea to essentially re-release an 8-year-old report—and without the backing of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which provided the initial funding for the national campaign. I loved the first report, and I thought the recommendations were excellent. But the 2003 report faced an uphill battle, and the situation is even more difficult now. Eight years later, there’s not much to show for the Campaign’s efforts. Carnegie released a review of the project a few months ago, and in reading that document the only tangible accomplishment I could find was that civics is now included in the NAEP every four years instead of every eight.

Some of the other recommendations seem na├»ve. My background is in service-learning, so I’ve been on the alternative assessment bandwagon for many years. I would love to see states encourage this, but in the current education reform climate it’s not going to happen. If schools and teachers were not under so much pressure to do well on standardized tests (to the point that school- and system-wide cheating scandals are becoming increasingly common), the recommendations in the Guardian report would make more sense. We do want young people to become engaged citizens. But schools are in no position to take the lead on this.

The model we use for public education is outdated. It is a relic of the Industrial Revolution. Many, many people have made this point before, much more eloquently than I can. In this model, classroom teachers are the bosses, and the students are the workers. The bosses tell the workers what to do, and the workers do it. The bosses are the experts, and they transmit knowledge to the workers, who are supposed to accept it unquestioningly.

This model stifles the creativity and innovation we claim to value, which means it does not encourage active and engaged citizenship. Yet policymakers and “reformers” all the way up to the President of the United States continue to push for standardization of curriculum and instruction. Given this climate, schools—at least, those in poor and working-class neighborhoods that face the constant threat of sanctions if test scores don’t improve every year—are in no position to do what is recommended in the Guardian report. So we have to think about other options.

The “Pathways through Participation” report is the result of over a hundred interviews with people who are socially, politically or civically active in their communities. The purpose of the interviews was to find out why these people are active—what caused them to get and stay involved. According to the report, there are a variety of reasons why people become active. School-based civic education is one of many factors, including (a) personal motivations, such as the desire to do good or meet people, (b) triggers, such as an event or a reaction to a decision, (c) resources, such as time, money, skills and knowledge, and (d) opportunities, such as a space to meet in or a group with similar interests.

We tend to think of civic participation as something that grows over time, with civic education providing a foundation for further involvement later. But the Pathways report finds that involvement ebbs and flows according to people’s personal circumstances.

There is much more to the Pathways report, but I think what it suggests is that we should think more holistically about how to get young people engaged. Community-based organizations can help provide the four factors described in the report to encourage young people’s involvement. One example of how this can be done is a program in the U.K. called “Young Advisors,” which trains mostly disadvantaged youth to be youth engagement consultants. Young Advisors can provide “youth voice” to policy decisions made by organizations and local governments, or they can help these organizations figure out how to get it. YAs also evaluate existing programs and provide recommendations for improvement. And once they have enough experience and training, YAs are paid for their work.

Most of the work YAs do is for local governments, especially youth service providers. By working directly with adult decision-makers and evaluating their programs, YAs learn how decisions are made about those programs, such as how they are funded and the compromises that always must be made when funding decisions are made. They also learn how to influence such decisions. YAs get to work with other youth and do work that is important to the community. Because they are paid, they know that what they do is valued.

Young Advisors rely, to some extent, on the civic education they receive in school, but most of what they do they learn on the job. They have the motivation to learn because they are being paid, but more importantly because they enjoy doing work that benefits the community. They know that the work they do is public, so they work hard to do it well. They don’t just learn about government; they learn how to participate in their communities.

While school-based civic education can provide much of the knowledge we want young people in the U.S. to have about how their government works and what their rights and responsibilities are as citizens, the outdated model we still use for K-12 education limits the effectiveness of school-based civic education. We’ve been using this model for hundreds of years, and our “leaders” seem intent on restricting the ability of schools and teachers to innovate in any meaningful way. Communities do not face the same barriers. If we want citizens who can work together to identify creative solutions to the complex problems we face, communities must find creative ways, such as the “Young Advisors” model, to help young people learn what they are not likely to learn in school.

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