Civics Education, Everyone!

How often do we engage students in the communities they live in?

How often are they given opportunities to play a role in changing local community policy?

Do educators and community leaders actively seek student involvement?

What happens to student engagement and core skills, such as writing and public speaking, when students play a role in local reform?

Jessica Lander’s recent Usable Knowledge post on the positive educational and social benefits of effective civic education outlines the ways in which the field of civics can demand that the players in the game master some of the skills that we deem most valuable in today’s society.

A friend of mine, who taught high school statistics for nine years, asked me, “What are professionals actually doing during the work day? The answer to this question may give us direction as to what students really should be learning.”

Some of the common work activities me and my friend both engaged in were drafting material, explaining next steps, and the status of projects via email, conducting and creating clear, concise and well organized research reports and giving presentations, short or long, on either our own ideas or research results.

I now often ask myself this question and have noticed that some of these daily tasks seem to have a common denominator:


This makes perfect sense, considering people don’t usually work in a bubble. But the jeey point here is we’re being asked to master various forms of communication, both written and verbal, throughout the work day. Knowing one skill, say verbal communication, isn’t good enough. We need to know how to effectively communicate with others in a concise manner. More importantly, we need to know that our written and verbal communication is to the point where we can confidently communicate with any member in or outside the organization.

So when Lander’s recalls her students rewriting and drafting emails, proposals and material for their presentations, when she recalls them going over their presentations for people who are the gatekeepers of change, it seemed to have given her students a realistic opportunity to want to put those skills to use. It gave them real reason to put those skills to use. It seemed act as an inside look to what being an active and engaged citizen looks like. Or rather, they were, in fact, being active and engaged citizens and that level of engagement opened their eyes to that democratic right.

Lander’s can clearly see the enormous potential civic education has. She notes throughout the post how what her students were doing was very hands on and practical, how it requires them to go beyond the five paragraph essay, as she says, and how it would take more than just a creative, dedicated, and passionate teacher in a classroom for students to really reap the benefits of this kind of engagement. It would take community involvement. In order for students to get the most out of civic education, they would need to leave the traditional classroom, so to speak.and actually emerge themselves in the issues of the community and then work on communicating why those are issues and how best to solve them.

What was troubling, but not surprising, was how the students had to go up against bureaucracy in their own school system:

We found, to our frustration, that our school’s administration barred us from asking for a meeting or otherwise directly contacting a number of district and state officials.

Relinquishing even small amounts of control can be difficult. But if school systems are committed to fostering civically engaged young people, they must be ready to take seriously the voices and ideas of their students.

The schools administration, in this case, proved to be stopping real education. More confusing is if district and state officials aren’t willing to speak with students in the neighborhoods they cover, who are they speaking to?…I digress.

The reality of this assignment is what makes it so successful and beneficial. Lander’s assignment is not like most assignments, wherein a student asks a teacher why an assignment needs to be done and the teacher says something along the lines of “it will make you a better writer” but there’s no real context, there’s no real vision attached to the assignment. Therefore, to some students, the purpose doesn’t seem real. As the title of the post suggests, the students’ presentations were being reviewed by real people who had the power to make real change and could really possibly take the students’ views and arguments into consideration. More than anything, the students were interacting with local leaders and business professionals in the same way those leaders and professionals would interact with one another.

Talk about preparing students for the future!

I’ll end with this well said nugget from the post:

When successful, civic education should be transformative. After all, civic engagement is about seeing needs in the community, knowing how to make change, and believing you have the power to do it. On that day, my students came away sure in their voice and confident that their voice was heard.

Ebony Bridewell-Mitchell TEDxHGSE

I can’t agree with Ebony Bridewell-Mitchell TEDxHGSE‘s viewpoint any further.

Schools are a far more complex social system than we tend to treat them, so the solution to fixing public schools is just as complex.

She argues that one of the items we must understand about schools is that they are systems that are both “enabled by their environment and constrained by their environment.”

Joel Klein, former NYC public schools chancellor and Cami Anderson, former superintendent of Newark public schools (and former Klein advisor) are great examples of administrators struggling to push for change in the mixy-mess that is education.

While I disagree with some of Joel Klein’s initiatives, I believe he was effective in many of his controversial programs because he understood, to a certain degree, the inner workings of the overly bureaucratic NYC public school system. He understood some of the deep-seated behaviors and mentalities of some educational beauracrats who used their power to their benefit at the expense of providing students with a quality education. He also did a good job at vocalizing what was happening within schools, as a way to support some of the changes he wanted to implement. He pushed for school choice because local, district schools were failing. But despite this fact, communities wanted to hang out to these underperforming schools, which have their own complex history. Klein worked with the UFT to open smaller public and charter schools that would gift teachers and students with an easier load. This was an excellent move that showed his ability to mix the old with the new and deal with such a controversial issue in a more humanistic way. His time at the DOJ’s Antitrust Division served him well.

Cami Anderson, former superintendent of Newark, NJ public schools, could have been more careful about making changes to similar issues. While she meant well, there were times where she chose not to involve parents with major policy changes and that affected how parents perceived and interacted with her. I think she is the perfect example of a education leader who struggled with working with the system and thought it easier to entirely dismiss the foundation that was laid before her arrival.