Education Opinion

Citizenship: The ‘Lost Social Mandate of the Public School’

By Peter S. Hlebowitsh — March 25, 1998 6 min read
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In 1995, my colleague and I won a grant competition conducted by the U.S. Information Agency that supported a two-year project dedicated to the reform of civic education in the high schools of the Czech Republic. The idea behind our initiative was to target the school as an agency for the encouragement and sustenance of democracy and to help Czech educators develop the curriculum materials, teaching strategies, and organizational schemes needed to bring civic consciousness and democratic practice to the school experience. Given the fragile nature of democracy in the Czech Republic, the USIA showed wisdom in identifying the school as a source for the nation’s democratic stability.

When our friends and colleagues learned about our project, the response was generally congratulatory, but it often also included a question resembling “Why aren’t you or others doing something like that in the United States?” The thrust of the question testified to some perceived need to focus on citizenship education in America. My initial reaction to the question emphasized the fact that there are many groups working on citizenship education in American public education. The Center for Civic Education in Calabasas, Calif., and the National Council for the Social Studies in Washington, for instance, have been leaders in generating some national discussion on citizenship education, even on national standards in the area of citizenship. On other fronts, the U.S. Department of Education has supported studies by the National Assessment of Educational Progress on civic skills and knowledge, and various commentators, including scholars such as R. Freeman Butts, have written eloquently about the primacy of citizenship in the school experience.

But despite these positive signs, I had to acknowledge the fact that citizenship education has not exactly thrived in the present-day American public school curriculum and that some examination of the problem might help us understand the condition of neglect.

Inattention to citizenship is partly documented by the fact that it has no clear residence in the school curriculum. In the high school, for instance, a spoonful might be found in a history course, a larger portion perhaps in some social studies courses, and the largest serving maybe in the overall process of schooling (in the extra-classroom areas of student government and student journalism, for example, and in the general socio-personal conditions of participation in school life). More-deliberate classroom-based efforts to deal with citizenship, such as common general education courses dedicated to the purposes of developing social insight and social competencies for intelligent participation in a democracy, are generally out of favor in the schools today. The effects of this snub in the curriculum show themselves in the less-than-stellar performances on the NAEP civics test and on national survey data that certify, among other things, that only 59 percent of American adults between the ages of 18 and 24 can identify the job held by Al Gore and that only 30 percent of the same group is involved in ongoing community service.

Afew governance and policy factors should be considered in understanding the situation. One relates to the fact that American public schools are organized according to a unique governance structure that disperses national reform purposes to state levels. Because the plenary power of public schooling in America belongs to 50 different states, and not to a central federal office, a national voice for citizenship education is difficult to actualize. This is unlike mathematics education or science education, or any other disciplinary mainsprings of the school curriculum, which are nationally anchored by college-entrance requirements and the disciplinary lines of the academy. In contrast, citizenship education is a phantom in the curriculum, peeking out here and there. Most states have not been aggressive in giving some curriculum direction to schools in the area of citizenship. In this way, the tendency toward decentralization has come at the expense of citizenship education, which is manifestly a national concern.

Understanding the issue of citizenship education brings us face to face with the very people who are involved on a daily basis with the education of the nation’s children.

Unfortunately, the future of citizenship education in the school curriculum looks even more bleak than the present. One of the main problems has to do with the recent faith policymakers have placed in school choice options. The support of different choice options is increasingly resulting in a view of public schooling that has shifted from one that attended to a public, sociocivic mandate to one that now attends to familial, individualistic mandates. The bipartisan embrace of school choice mechanisms, including the promotion of charter schools, magnet schools, and corporate-sponsored for-profit schools, makes it clear that variety and choice are the coins to the school realm. The implication is that citizenship education in the curriculum is an option that some schools can do without, an option with validity only if the consumer or parent demands or otherwise desires it. The public agenda embodied in the original purpose of public school, which was to prepare a pluralistic population to build and sustain a constitutional democracy, gets lost in a context where school alternativeness is the primary pursuit.

Still, the problem is not all rooted in this turn toward school variety. A broader, taken-for-granted mentality toward citizenship education has been with us for some time now. When, for instance, was the last time you heard anyone express heartfelt concern over the neglect of civic education in the schools? How many schools actively engage in an evidence-collection process that helps them determine how effectively their students have mastered various sociocivic skills, competencies, and values? If what schools measure and count as achievement represents what is most important and most privileged in the school experience, then clearly citizenship education has been slighted. This is not to say that all schools ignore citizenship, but that there simply is not a national call for the active teaching of citizenship in the public schools.

In the end, understanding the issue of citizenship education brings us face to face with the very people who are involved on a daily basis with the education of the nation’s children. School leaders, including principals and teachers, are the final arbiters of what happens in the school. Irrespective of the various forces that might affect their judgments, educators ultimately decide what gets included, excluded, emphasized, and supplemented in the classroom. Thus, they are the ones who have actualized the neglect of citizenship education. And in this sense, citizenship education could be a neglect more deeply rooted in the failure of teacher training, in loss of a vision for public school teachers that goes beyond lesson planning and classroom management.

The social vision for American education, which was powerfully articulated by John Dewey and other early progressive thinkers, framed the school as an agency for social amelioration. By implication, it also framed the work of the teaching profession as a commitment to build a better life for each child and a better democratic society for all children. This is the lost social mandate of the public school--the crowning of the social good, through brotherhood and sisterhood, from sea to shining sea.

A version of this article appeared in the March 25, 1998 edition of Education Week as Citizenship: The ‘Lost Social Mandate of the Public School’


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