What barriers stand in the way of better civic learning? | MIT Center for Civic Media

What barriers stand in the way of better civic learning?

Liveblog of the second panel of the conference Civics Education: Why it Matters to Democracy, Society and You at Harvard Law School, April 1, 2013. Willow Brugh contributed to these notes.

#vizthink by willowbl00
(#vizthink by willowbl00)


  • Under Secretary Martha Kanter (Under Secretary, U.S. Department of Education)
  • David Hiller (President & CEO, McCormick Foundation)
  • Gene Koo (Executive Director, iCivics)
  • Kathleen McCartney (Dean of the Faculty of Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education)
  • Mabel McKinney-Browning (Director, Division for Public Education at American Bar Association)
  • Moderator: Chief Justice Margaret Marshall (former Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court)

JMM: I love professors and heads of foundations, but the people who are on this panel have really been down in the trenches. My perspective comes from life growing up in South Africa. Every barrier was in place for education. What I learned was that these barriers do not necessarily stand in the way of success, but they can keep going generation by generation. Second thing that I learned was that the most ill-educated people don’t have access to power. But I don’t just want talk about the barriers. Let’s talk about how we overcome those barriers. [To MK:] Talk about the barriers that you have seen and the ways out.

MK: After 40 years in education and teaching in Lexington Public Schools... In the early 70s, we actually had to find places for classrooms in the basements of the local churches for those kids who were the most difficult kids nobody could deal with. I was deputized as a probation officer during that tenure in Lexington.

I come back here working in the Obama administration, where we have a “Cradle to Career” agenda. I see 47% of adult Americans can’t read at adult level, I see half of college students not graduating in six years, the average age being 28. The Commissioner of Higher Education in Massachusetts said to me that his greatest point of pride was putting civic education in secondary education. After four years in government, it’s far more difficult to implement and less elegant than anyone would want to legislate.

We asked, “What if we got 125 scholars together to do a meta-analysis around the civic mission of schools?” Infrastructure is one of our greatest challenges. I use Massachusetts as an example of an infrastructure change that can undergird a movement to push for engaged learning for civic engagement and civic outcomes. How do we help the 3 million educators out there who teach STEM? How do we give them the tools to teach STEM in a civic context? We produced a crucible moment with a call to action for business, government, K-12, with specific recommendations by these 125 scholars. Taylor Stanek (in this room) knows everything about civic learning, he helped us craft the “Civic Learning and Engagement in Democracy” report as a roadmap for the government to undertake nine civic actions to implement this crucible moment in time. It’s about changing the infrastructure.

DH: My experience is that this happens where there is a leadership commitment to making it happen. I’m based in Chicago. We had a strike earlier this year, we announced we are closing schools, and we are rolling out new teacher assessment models, all of which are dominating the education agenda. How do we get civic education up as part of this agenda? At Chicago Public Schools, we are launching a new pilot capstone civics course that will be integrated into the social studies curriculum. That happened in the first year. Diana Hess (who is here) is involved in the assessment of that. It takes that leadership commitment when their are so many competing agenda items.

My status is a recovering newspaper editor. News literacy is an important part of civics education. There has been an explosion and fragmentation of media over the past 15 years. When you survey people they are overwhelmed and cynical, not knowing what to believe. How do you navigate and make sense of this huge flow of information? I would integrate critical thinking skills for news and information into this agenda.

JMM: [Introduces Mabel McKinney-Browning] From classroom to the ABA, what are the barriers and what have you done?

MMB: The teacher is the key place we need to think about since we are asking them to do this job. DH just talked about what’s going on in Chicago Public Schools. What recently happened was that young woman who was killed after performing at the inauguration. My husband’s retirement job is teaching calculus at her school. I asked him how they responded to it? He said in his calculus class it didn’t come up. I couldn’t believe there wasn’t a general conversation about what happened and how it affected the community!

What I’m concerned about is that teachers are struggling with their concerns about their community and brushing them aside rather than bringing them up in class. Their opinion isn’t valued in the school context. In the 1960s, everyone had the freedom to talk about these things in that moment. Now, teachers feel like they will be retaliated against for expressing their opinion.

Do young people even have an opportunity to know? Do we have the opportunity to spend the time it takes to unpack a serious and complicated issue? The word tolerance has been thrown around in the conversation. When I hear it, it gets my hackles up because I don’t want to be tolerated. I want everyone to hear my point of view and respect it, not necessarily tolerate it.

There is a conflict or a disconnect between what young people are seeing and hearing and the ideal of what we are asking our teachers to talk about. How do we bridge that if we aren’t willing to explore those issues in the safe spaces of schools? Schools used to be a place for this.

I think there is an overwhelmingly negative view of law and legislation. There are conflicts that are not even conflicts that rise to levels of discourse where they shouldn’t be. And somehow teachers are expected to get over that din and talk to students about what matters and what their role should be.

Through the ABA, we are giving opportunities to small groups of youth (1-2 from every state) to talk to political leaders in their offices. A few comments from young people on this field trip include one young woman from the west coast, who said she was the only person from her ethnic group to be part of a conversation there. We recruit a diverse set of youth so that often there is only one white person in the room. This is a benefit. Because President Obama was on Capitol Hill that week, our meetings were cancelled. But we met Rep. John Lewis on the street who talked to him for 15 minutes and the kids figured out that politicians are good people. We made sure that there were lots of staffers and interns to talk to them so they could see that there were opportunities for young people to make a difference.

JMM: [Introduces Kathleen McCartney, Dean of Harvard Graduate School of Education]

KM: As a first generation college student myself, these issues are near and dear to my heart. We talked ever so briefly about No Child Left Behind narrowing the curriculum and not allowing for other areas of study. I don’t think it’s as simple as blaming NCLB. We’ve got Margot Strom from Facing History, who are blending english/language arts and history. To do this well we really need additional teacher preparation from places like iCivics and Facing History.

There are materials available, but we need to teach them out to use it. Having sat through mind-numbing education, we have to be “good kids” to care enough to tough it out. Doing these courses well is difficult to do. Teachers need support. And we need parent volunteers and community support to help manage children engaged in different activities. Can it be done? Sure. Teachers love it; teach them how to be researchers.

I think the third barrier we talked about this morning that captivated everyone was what RM called vanilla education -- this requirement that our public schools be apolitical.

Want to complicate this. In school, we always wanted to talk about Vietnam, and teachers were always telling us about the Domino Theory. “Well, we need to be there and the domino theory.” We never had good conversations about it. What sorts of conversations are students having about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? What conversations do we have when we’re serving overseas? How do we talk about these things?

At HGSE, I like to meet with students over brown bag lunches. Students have talked about how faculty don’t know how to talk about race in the classroom. As soon as we bring it up, students say, it’s too hot and they back away. First time I heard this, I thought it was a cranky student. The second time, I took it more seriously. And after third time, we started doing sessions on how to talk about race in the classroom. It’s difficult to have these conversations in the classroom, preschool through higher ed.

I want to give credit to my colleague Meira Levinson, who has a new book coming out that asks, “Are we afraid of teaching civics ed in the classroom because they’ll be empowered to actually enact change in education?”

When my daughter Kimberley was in elementary school (she’s now in Law school), they had split the schedules of students into A and B. One kid in the neighborhood was in B, everyone else was in A. That one kid was miserable. My daughter put together a petition. Every child signed it. Civics ed in action. The principal met with her and they had one joined recess between A and B. Everyone was so excited about it even though it wasn’t that successful as a project.

JMM: [Introduces Gene Koo, iCivics] I’m leaving to Gene Koo to talk about the technological challenges.

GK: There are three things I want to touch on, including the challenges we face: 1) metrics and research backing what we’re doing, 2) the theme of controversy and lack of it in our schools, and 3) supply and demand for civics education.

I want to preface that I speak from a very specific perspective as the ED of iCivics started by Justice O’Connor, who charged me to work on this issue.

Question of scaling: How do you make it possible to reach everyone? There are Issues of equity and other challenges. Research and metrics: if we were to assemble top researchers in education, civics would be in a very small corner of this room, whereas STEM would be overflowing. Amount of attention being paid is insufficient. Before I went to iCivics, I worked for two years doing outreach and marketing for the same group that did that work for the Obama campaign. The science of manipulating public opinion is far outpacing the ability to teach literacy to deal with it. Billions of dollars are being spent on how to get people to buy products and vote a certain way. Millions (maybe?) are being spent on critical thinking on how to deal with that.

The one thing I want to say about controversy is that it’s happening with the backdrop of a changing America. Cultural-community groups are homogenizing faster than ever so that you are seeing less diversity than ever in schools. There is much more similarity among parents, and those opinions coming through their children in school. We can’t just rely on students to have diverse discourse as a result, as we once did. It’s harder to have controversy in the classroom, now the responsibility is on teachers which makes this a problem. A hate to admit that I get a lot of my news from Facebook, and so it’s biased to what my friends read. How kids get news could give kids a very biased view of the world.

Supply and demand of materials for schools. Traditionally civics isn’t a bad word but it’s a boring word, like eating your vegetables. HGSE research has shown that the materials are boring too. And it’s bizarre to be talking about how we need to get more controversy into the curriculum since we are living in a world that is filled with such good fodder.

There are weak requirements in most states around the country and even more so there is weak accountability for teachers teaching these topics. Weak requirements and responsibilities can push civics out of the curriculum even more.

Teachers are not being equipped to teach. There is a stereotype of the gym teacher teaching civics as an added requirement with little training. Schools are being so squeezed for professional development. Schools don’t have hours to work on training civics and doing the professional development that iCivics is offering, even when it’s free. People want to go. But the same teachers who can go, are going to more and more. The rich are getting richer. This is creating a deeper divide -- those who can continually go, and those who don’t have time to go. No market for it because of that.

Recently, Florida passed the Sandra Day O’Connor Act for civic materials in schools, which seemed like an opportunity for new textbooks on the subject. But Pearson said “forget it,” it wasn’t worth their while to get into the market. We have trouble leveraging the private market as well; Congress removed a lot of money from that section of civics education. We’re working against a massive deficit.

I would like to echo RB’s point this morning about urgency. We need to get everyone to stand up and say we need this now. We did that around science, but as far as our belief in our democracy, we haven’t done it. It’s having consequences because we haven’t invested in it.

JMM: Civics education can start young, but teachers become critical because we still think of it in terms of school systems. Kathy mentioned NCLB. When I was on the supreme judicial court, the controversy was between STEM and English/LA education. Parents were concerned that their kids were going from grade to grade without learning to read. Those kids coming in to first grade already knowing how to read had parents who were upset about teaching to tests. We don’t want to do this, but what venues do we take on? We’ve been talking about schools, schools, schools. Anyone want to take that on?

DH: There was a question about early education, which I think is really important. Civic education begins at birth. This is less about the cognitive, more about the social emotional skills (character). So many of the things that show later in life (fairly rigorous studies show) have a significant outcome such as not being in the justice system, health effects, education opportunities, etc. Early experiences are determinate of so many things. Not civics so much, but this is where it starts.

MMB: I think the curriculum has been driven by NCLB and it started with a Nation at Risk in the 1980s. Teachers are socialized about how they are supposed to act in the classroom. When I started teaching, we had freedom in the classroom based on our curriculum being a guideline rather than a dictation day-by-day of what to teach.

AP teachers are telling us that a week or two after our institute, providing them energy and joy, they have no time to add that into their curriculum because they’ll be measured by their students’ abilities to test on what they HAVE to have covered. They don’t have time for them to do research reports that dig deep into subject matter. They don’t have time for collaborative activities. It’s very prescriptive in response; they don’t have time to get the kids to take the information into synthesis. It’s on us to synthesize. We’re supposed to work with young people in school on how to do that, how to base conclusions on what they see! The teachers are being squeezed out of opportunities.

MK: I have been on a task force with the VA and DOD talking about what it would take to put a million vets into success in the workforce. Well every vet needs a mentor and a tutor. They need a coach. Four things: great content, mentor, tutor, and coach. Well that’s what every kid needs. Why can’t we scale that at least as a starting point for civic education? I love technology, and it’s a game changer. But with a third of americans not connected to that technology in the rest of the country, we have so much challenge just to implement better technologies for all. We now give waivers to the majority of states, to not throw out NCLB, but to give more flexibility to schools to provide what we are calling a well-rounded curriculum. This needs to move out of Congress. But we have laid the groundwork for adding more civic education to the classroom experience and provide what Howard Gardner was saying about a commons-based classroom.

KM: We have this platform edX that could be an opportunity to bring good ideas to scale.

JMM: [To KM:] You have a whole program at HGSE for superintendents. What was their reaction to having to meet the new state standards?

KM: It’s a diverse community with a plethora of opinions. Most people think the main good thing that NCLB offers us is a documentation of the extent of educational inequality. This was important to know. Other reactions include that the day is too short. I think people are concerned about the perverse incentives that NCLB has brought. But I don’t think anyone believes it makes sense to go back to a day before NCLB. We still need to get the incentives right. It’s a relatively new law; we need to do more tinkering to get it right.

JMM: Education has been so local -- town by town -- it’s your town school committee. For local administrators, how do they address deep inequities across schools?

DH: I want to bring up a related issue. MK, you brought up our veterans. It tied back into what Robert Gallucci said earlier, that the galvanizing issues of the 60s were the Vietnam War and the draft. Everyone had a stake in it. We’ve now in-sourced our fighting to less than 1% of Americans. Most people don’t know those being deployed. The issue is remote, not one of the passions which ignites them. The general prevalence of the service, national service -- military and otherwise -- has receded. This is one less channel for young people to engage on around their community. And then budgetary issues: all those local engagement efforts are losing money, not gaining. There’s not a lot of training going on. How do we not cut back efforts while losing budgets?

JMM: The STEM folks made testing critical to the fight against “not falling behind.” Do you think that’s an avenue for civics education to go down?

GK: Too controversial for me to talk about. Part of the O’Connor Act in Florida does have high stakes test included. Florida has leapt to the top of people talking about civic education and asking for our resources. It lit a fire under people to get them moving, calling attention to the issue.

[Name missed], student at local university: Until this year, there has been a growing for-profit sector of education. They lack shared communities and a campus to protest on, yet they rely on government money to exist. Is this sector serving the same public role that the traditional, non-profit educational institutions do?

MK: We published a college scorecard right after the State of the Union. You can go to any school in the country that received federal funding and look at graduation rate, loan default rate, earnings for the program, and other data. Four out of five metrics have to do with money. Let’s think about what you can offer us as a civics metric. We are studying that. Is there some set of information that can be incorporated in the 1.0 version? After spending years studying this, we find there are just as many bad schools as good schools in every sector. We can set thresholds for performance -- California’s are higher than the federal ones. Mediocre schools do get better, low performing schools close, and high get released from those expectations.

[Name missed], past president of Massachusetts committee on social studies: I taught HS for 40 years, did lots of civic education, including a course on “Problems in Democracy,” which was dropped because of MCAS testing. More and more schools are passing on their civics education to math, science, and english teachers. But to do the hard stuff you have to have a background in it. If you don’t have a background in history it becomes the most boring class: mainly just historical films are shown.

Professional development is going way. Teachers can’t walk into the classroom with confidence, especially in social studies. Their fees for conferences aren’t paid. They even have to pay for substitutes to get a day off for professional development. The New England conference for social studies is offered every year, and we used to assemble 2000 teachers. We’ll be lucky to get 300 this year. Schools are not supporting their teachers. How do you get those teachers the professional development they need?

KM: We could put some of the good professional development online. Does that take the place of the conference? No. I think people like to learn interactively. Given budget cuts, I think there are some things we could do through online education.

JMM: Some online education, given the budget cuts, more people are now seeing the value in it.

Paul Baumann, Director of the Education Commission of the States’ National Center for Learning and Citizenship: It’s clear there are lots of little cogs at work: no single lever for education. Accountability structures, testing, etc., if you only turn one nothing happens. We need systems thinking at the federal level but also across the 50 states. Education policy is addressed at the state level. What are your thoughts so far as systems to get all the cogs going in the same direction?

DH: The school seems to be the most important locus for improving civic education through collective practices (referred to by Howard Gardner earlier). How do you reform and improve schools period? What is the role of learning communities with the teachers amongst all the subjects? There is research around this. Understanding is well-established for practices around the school and climate, elements that get these cogs moving.

GK: You [ECS] are the folks ultimately behind the common core, which is an amazing example of systemic change for english and math. I would love to see a common core for the social studies and civics. Common core has made it much more viable for the private sector to jump in.

Josh Ostroff, Natick Selectman, was on State Senator Richard Moore’s Civic Education commission: Can you envision successful or robust civic education if it’s not accompanied by a remedial education for the adult population? Education budgets are voted locally. To the extent that we want this, it’s up to the adults to fund it. That seems like a barrier.

KM: I believe in lifelong learning. Absolutely right -- we’re taught that our vote matters. We’ve all skipped some votes on busy days. But after the election in 2000, I’ll never do that again. Lifelong learning is important in every topic, not just this. We share knowledge collectively when we follow current events, but it’s good to call attention to it.

DH: I think that’s such an important thing. For adult population generally, and for those that are not in school, have not graduated, or are not going to college. That percentage of the population isn't receiving a civic education. That’s a growing gap between those with a college education and HS education with regard to civics.

Becky W. at Harvard Law School and School of Education: What is the role of parents in all of this? Dean McCartney talks about the petition being brought by her daughter, but that probably didn’t come from the school. My parents suggested I write something to Justice O’Connor, and she kindly wrote back. That motivation came from my family. And for some families it’s not about lack of exposure to civics, but for them civics doesn’t work well. They have no stake in it because it hasn’t done well by them. What’s the difference between taught versus lived civics?

MMB: There are a variety of stakeholders in civic education. Those we have an impact on, who influence others. Parents determine how controversial teachers can be in their program. There is an issue in taking it away from parental control.

GK: iCivics has video games, and we have feedback from parents that they are enjoying the games. We know this because we see spikes in traffic when we advertise it to parents at events. Parents are at the heart of what we are doing.