The Next Generation of Civics Education

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The Next Generation of Civics Education

Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the iCivics "Educating for Democracy in a Digital Age" conference

March 29, 2011

I want to extend my thanks to the many people here today who are on the frontlines of the effort to strengthen and reinvigorate civics education.

It's a special privilege to be here with one of my heroes, Justice O'Connor. After more than twenty years on the bench, everyone would have understood if she withdrew from public life and took up quieter pursuits. But she didn't.

She saw that the lack of civic knowledge and engagement in the United States was a pressing problem.

She stood up and did something about it—and I am so grateful for her leadership.

I want to provide l two takeaway messages today. The first is that a foundation in civics is not a luxury but a necessity. Students today absolutely need a sense of citizenship, an understanding of their history and government, and a commitment to democratic values. They need to know their rights--and their responsibilities. Civics cannot be pushed to the sidelines in schools.

At the same time, civics instruction needs to be more engaging and interactive, both inside and outside of the classroom. It's no secret that many young people find civics and government instruction to be dusty and dull. It's time to revitalize and update civic education for the twenty-first century.

When we talk today about educating for democracy in a digital age, civics educators are often hampered by two misconceptions or myths.

Many people believe that in a highly-competitive global economy, civics education is no longer important. If you want to succeed, the message is: Take advanced science and math courses. But don't worry about those civics classes.

Civics education has also acquired a reputation as being hopelessly old school. In an era of texts, tweets, and chat rooms, and the instant democracy of the Web, civics education too often seems antiquated.

Recent events have debunked the idea that civics education doesn't matter. From the peaceful uprising for democracy in Egypt to the tragic shootings in Tucson at a Congress on the Corner event, Americans have been reminded again that freedom matters--and that democracy is its embodiment.

And I would suggest to you that while civics education and engagement is vital in its own right, the skills acquired through civic participation are in fact critical to succeeding in the knowledge economy of the 21st century.

Our founders, from George Washington to Thomas Jefferson, understood that informed citizens were the lifeblood of a healthy democracy. They understood that civics education was the first bulwark against tyranny. A half century later, Abraham Lincoln said that education was "the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in." Lincoln believed that, for every citizen, an appreciation of "the value of our free institutions" was "an object of vital importance."

And yet today, a staggering number of Americans do not know much of the basic history and traditions of our nation.

Please listen carefully to these statistics: Nearly two-thirds of Americans cannot name all three branches of government. Yet three in four people can name all of the Three Stooges.

Less than half of the public can name a single Supreme Court justice. And more than a quarter do not know who America fought in the Revolutionary War. But more than 80 percent of Americans know Michael Jackson sang "Beat It" and "Billie Jean."

Immigration is a hot-button issue now. But when Newsweek recently asked one thousand Americans to take the U.S. citizenship test, almost 40 percent failed. Nearly a third could not name the current Vice President. And roughly three quarters could not explain why we fought the Cold War.

Civic knowledge, as Justice O'Connor has said, is not inherited "through the gene pool" or passed on in mother's milk. It is learned—at school, and at the dinner table. And, too often, our schools are doing a poor job of transmitting civic knowledge.

The last National Assessment of Educational Progress found that less than one-third of American fourth, eighth, and twelfth grade students are proficient in civics. The NAEP also showed distressing disparities in civic knowledge between white students and minority students--or what's known as the "civic achievement gap."

The challenge today is to both boost civic knowledge and engagement and close the civics achievement gap. And civics educators can only reach those goals if they change the way they do business.

Organizations like iCivics are helping to lead this shift. Its web-based education projects offer an array of interactive, civics-themed games and activities that students can use in the classroom or at home.

Students can assume the role of a Supreme Court justice and help decide a school dress code case. They can learn how someone becomes a U.S. citizen by guiding a new immigrant through the process. And they can become a representative in Congress for a day and see what it takes to turn a good idea into law.

Justice O'Connor has said that to be effective, "twenty-first century civic education must not only be hands-on; it must also meet students where they are – and where they are is online."

That is the truth. Leveraging the Internet to update civic education for the digital age is essential. The Internet is so much more than just a source of information. It's a powerful platform for students to exchange and debate ideas about what's going on in their communities. And it's a vital vehicle for organizing political activities and grassroots activism and finding government assistance.

It is also important that students have opportunities to learn and experience civics offline. A number of organizations, including the American Bar Association, and the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project, are strengthening civics both in the classroom and the community.

Under the leadership of President Stephen Zack, the ABA is now organizing "Civics and Law Academies" to engage young people and get them excited about civics. The Marshall-Brennan Project recruits law students to teach full semester classes about the constitution in public high schools.

And when I was the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, I got to work with a cutting-edge civics provider, the Mikva Challenge. The Mikva Challenge seeks to move beyond your grandmothers' civics to what it calls "action civics." Unlike most traditional approaches, they teach civics not only through classroom instruction, but through experiential involvement.

They place high school students in Chicago polling places, have them volunteer in political campaigns, let them host candidate forums, and advocate on student issues with local politicians.

One of those students whose life course was changed by the Mikva Challenge was De'Rell Bonner. I got to know De'Rell when I was in Chicago. Through the Challenge, he served on a youth council that advised me on education. He volunteered for a presidential campaign and worked at a poll station on Election Day. He helped organize a rally to improve Chicago's public schools--and addressed a crowd of more than twenty-five thousand people.

Today, he is a junior here at Howard University. And he says those experiences sparked a passion for civic engagement that helped set him on a path to a better future. More of our students need those kinds of opportunities.

Last but not least, I'm delighted to see that Rock the Vote and the National Education Association are working together to promote the 40th anniversary of the 26th Amendment, which gave 18-year-olds the right to vote. Since the kick-off of Democracy Day on March 23, educators in more than 800 schools are teaching their students about voter registration and civic engagement. They are teaching them why the 26th Amendment matters.

When it is done well, civic education equips students with the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century – the ability to communicate effectively, to work collectively, to ask critical questions, and to appreciate diversity. As Tony Wagner has written, 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."

Now, I have spent much of the last two years travelling across the country talking to students, parents, and teachers about our schools. Almost everywhere I go, I hear people express concern that the curriculum has narrowed.

No one doubts that math, reading, writing, and science are vital components of a good education in today's knowledge economy. But so, too, is the study of history and civics. And yet today, some teachers feel that schools concentrate on math and reading at the expense of teaching civics and government.

A recent survey found that 70 percent – 70 percent – of social studies teachers believe that their classes are a lower priority because of pressure to show progress on statewide math and language arts tests.

That's unacceptable. Schools should not have to choose between teaching math, reading, and science, and civics, government, and history. This must be a "both/and" choice, not "either/or."

As many of you know, our proposal to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act goes much further than existing law in supporting a well-rounded, world-class curriculum. We have proposed to replace funds that now go to small, directed or earmarked grants, with a much bigger, competitive pool of $265 million to strengthen the teaching of subjects like civics, history, and government.

These funds are an important start. But the truth is that when it comes to strengthening civic education, the federal role is limited. We can invest in proven and innovative programs. But the best ideas and solutions don't come from Washington. They come from dedicated schools and organizations across the country.

Homegrown initiatives and high-quality providers can tap students' enthusiasm for politics and government. They can help illuminate how to use the Internet, the power of technology, and the opportunities for interactive curriculum to reshape civic education for the digital age.

So, I urge you to keep innovating and continue your quest to make civics instruction more rigorous and relevant.

This is difficult work. But I applaud the schools and organizations that are pointing the way forward. They are pioneering the next generation of civic education, and helping lead the country where we need to go.

At its best, civics and history is about providing students with a sense of time beyond the here and now. It's about ensuring that students have the skills and knowledge needed for meaningful participation in public life. It's about not only knowing your opportunities but your obligations as a citizen.

The need to revitalize and re-imagine civic education is urgent. But that urgent need brings a great opportunity – the chance to improve civic education in ways that will resonate for years.

Together, let us seize that opportunity on behalf of all our children – and for the good of our communities and nation.