University and State Partnerships to Increase Civic Learning and Engagement

Posted on January 24, 2013 by Martha Kanter

On a sparkling Bowling Green morning in early November, we arrived at Western Kentucky University where Gary Ransdell, WKU’s visionary president, opened the Seventh Annual Kentucky Engagement Conference. He called for “A New Era of Engagement” in the civic life of the campus, the community and the state. Dr. Paul Markham, Assistant Professor of Honors Interdisciplinary Studies and Co-Director of the Institute for Citizenship and Social Responsibility, had worked with President Ransdell and a team of faculty and students to convene Kentucky’s thought leaders from education, government, business and philanthropy to invigorate a call to civic leadership and shared action to seek solutions to the challenges they face. For higher education, there was clearly a clarion call for deeper civic learning across the curriculum and deeper engagement in service learning opportunities to make a difference in K-12 schools and community work. Markham and his colleagues were particularly interested in building bridges between the traditional aims of liberal education and practical career preparation. Markham expressed his desire for the students of WKU to graduate not only with superior content knowledge, but with an understanding of what it means to practice citizenship in the working world. Markham has now moved to the University of Washington where he is slated to accelerate their civic learning and engagement agenda. Look for more good work to come from Paul and his colleagues in the West.

The session on Student Philanthropy profiled an experiential learning approach at Northern Kentucky University where students study social problems and non-profit organizations in their region and then make decisions about investing funds to help them build capacity. At the heart of this project is applying critical thinking and development principles to build self-sufficient and sustainable communities. A WKU session “It Takes a Village: Green Neighborhood Builds Partnerships and Sustainability” profiled the university’s work with Habitat for Humanity to create a mixed-income, mixed use affordable housing community as a statewide demonstration. This partnership began with a realization that “experts” at the table should include university, non-profit, local government, and neighborhood partners. Much of the vision for the Green Neighborhood project stemmed from the ideas and energy of “everyday” people in the Bowling Green community.

At the lunch session, Secretary of State for the Commonwealth of Kentucky, Alison Lundergan Grimes, discussed her commitment to civics education and her readiness “to implement fresh ideas and sound solutions to help make a reality the citizens’ vision for Kentucky.” She pledged to visit 12 regions in the state to listen, learn and then propose ways to increase the civic investment of Kentucky residents in the life of their communities. Bowling Green was her first stop. You can learn more about Secretary Lundergan’s state-wide tour here.

From Kentucky I traveled to Ohio to deliver a keynote at the 45th anniversary conference of the Southwestern Ohio Council for Higher Education (SOCHE) hosted at Wright State University. This regional consortium seeks to reaffirm the commitment of its member institutions to civic learning in higher education as a major thrust of its agenda. Throughout the conference sessions, faculty and students from across Ohio confirmed a powerful, palpable appetite for a more engaged, conscious commitment to the values and ideals of America’s democratic society, highlighting programs, sharing knowledge and strategies and giving students and faculty the opportunity to solve some of our nation’s most pressing problems in the heart of their communities.

During the event Dr. Timothy K. Eatman, Co-Director of the national consortium Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life (IA) and Assistant Professor of Higher Education at Syracuse University, proposed that the higher education infrastructure essential for meaningful public engagement requires diverse leadership and full participation. His report, “Scholarship in Public: Knowledge Creation and Tenure Policy in the Engaged University,” co-authored with founding IA Director and University of Michigan Professor Julie Ellison, is a cutting-edge resource for addressing promotion and tenure policies in the Arts, Humanities and Design, with implications for other Departments.

Throughout our visits to Kentucky and Ohio, we confirmed again and again that at no time has civic education mattered more to the strength of our nation, the vitality of our democracy, the prosperity of our country, and the capacity of diverse communities and individual Americans to succeed. This comes as no surprise. At the U.S. Department of Education, our data show that educational preparation leads to good jobs, productive civic contributions, better health and increased personal and societal prosperity. And it’s imperative that throughout our education system – at all levels – we ramp up our efforts to educate students for citizenship and democracy. The character of our nation in the 21st century depends upon our success in doing so!

The importance of civic learning and a vision of citizenship and social efficacy must become the staples of every American’s education, shared by higher education, K-12 schools, states and the federal government. In too many schools and on too many college campuses, courses and programs of study about the essence of a democracy and the importance of civic learning are peripheral to the core academic mission. Institutions such as Western Kentucky and Wright State are making strides toward placing civic education, service learning, public dialogue and debate, political participation and community service at the center of their mission to prepare all students for informed, engaged participation in the civic life of our nation.

Professors Markham and Eatman are convinced that institutions of higher education must take bold steps to increase their focus on civic learning and democratic engagement, not just for the ethical development of students, but also for career success in the 21st century. This is consistent with President Obama’s goal for the United States – once again  – to have highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. To compliment this effort, we know from research that K-12 students who participate in civic engagement activities have:

  • Higher grade-point averages, higher retention rates and are more likely to enroll in and complete college.
  • Demonstrated improved academic content knowledge, critical thinking skills, written and verbal communication skills, and leadership abilities.
  • Seen an increased interest in scholastic activities, especially those from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds, including low-income and minority students.

In addition to these skills, which are core to a liberal education, students involved in the “process” of public problem solving strengthen their ability to work with diverse people to find practical solutions to problems without easy answers.

Furthermore, Professor Markham recounted that, over time, WKU students involved in their Public Achievement program—a civic learning partnership with area K-12 schools—develop the confidence to address any problem they face. Markham commented, “When our students begin to solve ‘real’ problems by bringing the community together and helping others embrace their own skills and power to make change, they feel like there is no problem they can’t tackle.”

The U.S. Department of Education has taken to heart the idea that civic learning must be integral to the education spectrum and is committed to implement the nine action items in its Civic Learning Road Map and Call to Action. In addition to the Road Map, in 2011 the Department commissioned the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) to develop a report on civic learning and democratic engagement in higher education: A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future. From that effort, the Department is now collaborating with the American Commonwealth Partnership (ACP), which has as its purpose to bring together thousands of universities, colleges, community colleges, schools and other civic partners to promote civic education, civic mission and civic identity throughout all levels of education in the United States. The birth of the ACP initiative coincided with the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act, which established land-grant colleges and universities throughout the United States to promote access to higher education across social classes and equip students with the relevant knowledge and skills to address the important needs of our greater society.

We will continue our call for public input to highlight promising practices and to encourage further research to learn what works to inspire the call to civic learning and increased social responsibility.

As Tony Wagner of the Harvard Graduate School of Education says, there is a “happy convergence between the skills most needed in the global knowledge economy and those most needed to keep our democracy safe and vibrant.”

To support these efforts, as one example of many, the federal government is taking bold steps to encourage public service careers, especially to help in the outreach, recruitment, and hiring of more than 1.6 million highly effective teachers that our nation will need over the next decade. The decade will also welcome over 1.5 million Veterans, many of whom are even now expanding their ranks in American higher education. They bring to our classrooms the real-time experiences of civic duty and are already enriching our campus communities in ways that will expand our understanding of civic learning and engagement in building the future of our democracy. The U.S. Department of Education will continue to support civic learning as part of a well-rounded K-12 curriculum in the proposed Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and will continue to seek ways to realize the nine recommendations in the Road Map.

While we are passionate and committed, we are absolutely clear that we cannot do this work alone. To succeed, this great effort to advance civic learning and engagement for democracy’s future needs visionary leadership from institutions of higher education – like the folks in Kentucky and Ohio – and a spirit of innovation to prepare young people for citizenship that extends across family, community, and work.

Martha Kanter is the Under Secretary of Education for the U.S. Department of Education. She co-authored this blog with Dr. Paul Markham, Director of Community-Based Learning and Research at the University of Washington, Bothell and Dr. Timothy K. Eatman, Co-Director of Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public and Assistant Professor of Higher Education at Syracuse University.