Hand-In-Hand: Well-Rounded Education and Civic Engagement.

Archived Information

Hand-In-Hand: Well-Rounded Education and Civic Engagement.

Remarks as Delivered by U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. on October 19, 2016
October 21, 2016

 

Good afternoon. Thank you so much, Jeff, for the introduction, and thank you to the Press Club for inviting me here to speak with you today about a topic about which I am passionate, both as a former social studies teacher and as an American: the importance of civic education as part of a well-rounded education.

I've spoken about well-rounded education many times before. I often speak about Mr. Osterweil, who was my teacher in fourth, fifth, and sixth grade at P.S. 276 in Canarsie, Brooklyn. He made a huge difference in my life after my mom passed away. He made school a place that was engaging, compelling, and nurturing. We read and discussed the New York Times every day in his class. We performed Shakespeare. We went to the Met, and to the Museum of Natural History, and to other cultural institutions. And wherever we went, whatever we were doing, he would really listen and respond to our questions and our observations. He made each of us feel valued and unique.

Last December, the President, President Obama, signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which states are working hard to prepare to implement in the coming years. ESSA creates an opportunity for states and schools to reclaim the promise of a high-quality, well-rounded education, like the one I had thanks to great New York City public school teachers - an education that prepares every student, regardless of their background, to succeed in college and in careers.

Later this week, the Department of Education will release non-regulatory guidance on one part of ESSA, a new grant program designed to help schools and communities provide students with access to a well-rounded education, to create safe and supportive school environments, and to improve the use of technology.

We owe it to every child in this country to provide them with access to music and the arts; world languages; physics, chemistry, and biology; physical education and health; coding and computer science; and social studies, geography, government and civics. These are not luxuries. They are essential for preparing our students to thrive in the world they will experience beyond high school.

Today, I want to focus on the importance of civic education and what that might look like in schools and colleges.

When we think about the responsibilities of citizens, we often think primarily about voting.

Voting is unquestionably the cornerstone of freedom. The right to vote undergirds all our other rights. To not vote is to turn your back on your neighbors and your community and your country.

And, throughout our history, people have fought and even died to be treated as full citizens and to be able to cast a ballot. It was 132 years after the ratification of the Constitution before women were allowed to vote thanks to the 19th Amendment. It wasn't until 1965 and the passage of the Voting Rights Act that African-Americans were truly, finally guaranteed the right to vote despite the 15th amendment having been added to the Constitution nearly 100 years earlier. That's not ancient history, 1965. Congressman John Lewis was among many who were beaten and who suffered as part of that struggle and some older black voters today can still remember having to take literacy tests before being allowed to register and vote.

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 the 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. Finally, I would argue that our democracy, our communities, and our nation would be stronger if all of us volunteered on behalf of others.

None of this will occur automatically. As Americans, we celebrate our individualism and our differences. But to remain a functioning society and democracy, we also have to recognize that we are dependent on society and society depends on us.

All of us, parents, elected officials, educators, journalists and everyone else, must set a good example for our children and for newcomers to this country and work to make this, in Lincoln's words, a "more perfect union."

But, today, I want to argue that our schools and colleges have a special responsibility to prepare their students to do so. Educating students about their role in democracy was one of the original goals of public education in this country and it should remain so today, as our nation becomes more and more diverse.

And, right now, it is clear that our schools and colleges must do more to meet that goal.

The Nation's Report Card shows that only one in five eighth graders and 12th graders has a working knowledge of the Constitution, the presidency, Congress, the courts, and how laws are made. Not surprisingly, we're failing even more of our children of color and children from low-income families. Only about one in 10, one in 10, African-American, Hispanic, and low-income students have a working knowledge of how government functions.

Only a third of Americans even know that Joe Biden is vice-president or can name a single Supreme Court Justice. Those of us who work in Washington may think, "How could this be?" But it is the reality.

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-lite." 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.

Everyone above a certain age who watched Saturday morning cartoons remembers "How a Bill Becomes a Law" from Schoolhouse Rock. But that doesn't help them evaluate different positions on issues such as immigration or climate change or taxation.

So, today, I ask our nation's schools and colleges to be bold and creative in educating for citizenship. Make preparing your students for their civic duties just as much a priority as preparing them to succeed in college and in their careers.

And I ask educators to work from the broader definition of civic duty that I have described. I 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.

I know from personal experience that many issues are not always easy to talk about. I have two daughters, one in elementary school and one in middle school. Over the past year, we've had to talk to them a lot about the fact that the vast majority of police officers are dedicated public servants who are doing their best to keep all people safe. And at the same time, the reality is that we've got to talk, as a country, about systemic issues of racism, prejudice, and bias, and how they affect the relationship between police and communities.

I also made the same point when I was in St. Paul, Minnesota earlier this year, meeting with families and staff members at the school where Philando Castile worked. Philando Castile was a man who worked at a school in St. Paul. He was the cafeteria supervisor. He was beloved by the faculty and kids and parents of the school, and he was killed in an interaction with police in Falcon Heights, Minnesota.

And I went to mourn with the families and talk with the families - talk about the reality that Philando Castile was stopped more than 40 times by police before the incident where he was killed. I urged the parents and educators I met with to not sink into despair, but instead to work together with others in their community to make sure that an event like that would never happen again.

I wanted them to act on the same belief that I want my daughters to understand, that these issues can be resolved, but that it will take concerted efforts at all levels of government, national, state, and local.

Because, the reality is that for many of the biggest issues, including tensions between police and communities of color, they're not going to be settled solely by a decision by the President, or Congress, or even a bill passed in a state legislature.

The Department of Justice can monitor policing, can identify violations of civil rights, and can order changes in practices and policies to prevent these violations.

That's a start. But what's also needed are citizens who will work with others and vote strategically to demand changes in police training; to include bias, cultural competency, and ways to defuse tense situations in their police interactions; to demand an end to racial profiling; to demand an end to discriminatory practices by prosecutors and courts that have a dire impact on poor people.

The same activism, beginning at the local level, can make a difference in the creation of jobs, better housing, improved mass transit, and so many other issues. But this won't happen unless people have the knowledge, skills, and inclination to get involved that can be learned in school.

I know there are schools around the country doing a good job of this and there also are nonprofit, research, and advocacy groups such as iCivics, which was started by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, that are working to get more schools involved in civic education; and I want to applaud those efforts.

One organization that's helping make this happen is the James Madison Memorial Fellowship Foundation, which was established by Congress in 1986. When I was a teacher, I was fortunate to be a Madison Fellow, which allowed me to take classes on the effective teaching of the history of the Constitution and to participate in a community of talented and passionate secondary social studies educators. Generations of Madison Fellows selected from all 50 states are in classrooms throughout the country ensuring that their students have a good understanding of the foundations of American democracy.

One person who is doing this kind of work extraordinarily well is Jahana Hayes, who is a high school social studies teacher in Waterbury, Connecticut, in addition to being the 2016 National Teacher of the Year. Jahana is passionate about teaching her students at Kennedy High School about history and about the importance of community service and their obligation to improve the human condition. She is the adviser to the school's Helping People Out Everywhere Club, she and her students participate in the annual Walk for Autism and Rally for Life and have raised thousands of dollars toward cancer research. She points out that students want to help, but they need role models to show them how.

We need more teachers like Jahana and schools and districts to support them.

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 others' shoes, and to appreciate the different perspectives that have shaped our nation's history.

We should teach students that slavery is not just a scar on our national character erased by the Civil War. We should teach them to acknowledge and wrestle with the ways that ugly legacy continues to shape our country and helps explain the treatment of people of color in America today.

The way the new National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall tells this story is both powerful and unforgettable. When I visited, I was filled with horror as I read the bill of sale – bill of sale – for a 16-year-old girl named Polly, as I gazed upon a statue of Thomas Jefferson with the names of the human beings he owned inscribed on a stack of bricks behind him, and as I stood in front of what was once Emmett Till's coffin. But that's not the only story the Museum tells. It also tells the story of resistance and dignity in the face of oppression, from Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass to the Tuskegee Airmen. It is a wonderful new resource for the nation and for educators.

And that story continues today. Students should understand that the Constitution protects the right of NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick to protest during the National Anthem, and why players across the country – including high school students – are doing the same. And they should also understand and be able to explain with evidence why some people are offended by that decision or would choose a different way to express their views.

Civics shouldn't be an add-on. It can be made a part of every class, not just social studies and history, but reading and writing, science and math. Studying climate change in science class can be broadened and made more relevant by asking students to find out whether their local government is prepared to respond. Math can be made more engaging by having students research the ratio of liquor stores and grocery stores to population in various neighborhoods, and then asking the mayor why that is the case.

Beyond knowledge, students 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 local nonprofit advocates to end the dumping of garbage in the neighborhood, to support urban agriculture projects, and to advocate for more affordable housing.

They learned that they could make a difference and that there are many ways to serve. Joining the military is one way to serve. But so, too, is assisting in a homeless shelter, or fighting sexual violence, or tutoring younger children.

By getting involved in real issues, students learn that it is not enough to just shout about their disappointments and criticize the ideas of others. They have to offer solutions. They have to work together to advocate for those solutions. They have to push to make sure the solutions are implemented. And they have to understand that change takes time.

I'm proud that we, as a nation, provide opportunities through AmeriCorps to support young people who want to spend a year or more giving back to a community in need. We currently have 80,000 folks serving in this program, over half supporting our public schools, and we should have far, far more.

When I was an undergraduate, I taught civics one day a week in a school that served largely low-income students of color in Boston. I also tutored young people in the Mission Main Public Housing Development in the Roxbury section of Boston, and ran a summer camp there. And actually, I, with my fellow Harvard undergraduates, we lived for the summer in the community in the Mission Main Housing Project, which, sadly, at the time, was rife with crime and drugs and violence, but also rich with hope, and resiliency and tenacity.

We learned about those challenges and those commitments in the community in a way that I will never forget. In fact, those experiences helped shape my decision to pursue a career as a teacher and a principal in the very same neighborhood where I volunteered as an undergraduate.

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 recognize that it is 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 the opportunity to fulfill their potential. Service helps students understand the challenges in the community, helps them understand themselves, and also helps them understand the importance of the common good.

Colleges also have an important role to play in preparing young people to fulfill their responsibilities as citizens.

Back in 1947, the Truman Commission on Higher Education for Democracy concluded that educating for democracy "should come first … among the principal goals for higher education." It should come first among the principal goals for higher education.

That is just as true today, but this goal has, too often, been forgotten at times. And at times education, education policy makers, educators, students, and families have approached college as if the only worthwhile goal was a means to success in a competitive job market. But we know it has to be about more than that. Whether it's K-12 education or higher education, we have to see it as preparing students, yes, for college and careers, and yes, for civic participation, for citizenship, for caring about the common good, and contributing to the common good.

The good news is that this kind of civic education, civic education that digs into challenging issues, and teaches knowledge, skills, and inclinations to serve, actually works. It changes students' behavior as adults.

Research compiled by the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools shows that students who receive effective civic education are more likely to vote and discuss politics at home; four times more likely to volunteer and work on community issues; and more confident in their ability to speak publicly and communicate with elected officials.

As a bonus, this type of civic learning can actually prepare students for demanding careers in a globally competitive labor market because they will learn to think critically, to write clearly and persuasively, and to work with diverse groups of people.

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.

Thank you for this opportunity to talk with you, and I look forward to your questions.