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A remarkable and disturbing omen loomed from the front page of Education Week on the day before Thanksgiving (Nov. 24, 1999). Three of the four stories (encompassing nine-tenths of the space) foreshadow turbulent times for American public education, not to say for American constitutional government itself.

To the Editor:

A remarkable and disturbing omen loomed from the front page of Education Week on the day before Thanksgiving (Nov. 24, 1999). Three of the four stories (encompassing nine- tenths of the space) foreshadow turbulent times for American public education, not to say for American constitutional government itself.

One story, on the 1998 national assessment of civics, revealed how meager is the knowledge of K-12 students about democracy and constitutional government ("Beyond Basics, Civics Eludes U.S. Students"). A second story told how little American parents know about the vouchers and charter schools which they tend to support ("Vouchers, Charters a Mystery to Most"). The third and featured story was the first of a four-part series on the rapid expansion of the "education industry," detailing entrepreneurial efforts to privatize education and make it "a profitable experience" ("Ka-Ching! Businesses Cashing In on Learning").

These interrelated stories should alert the educational profession and civic-minded public groups to the threat posed to the primal purpose for which public schools were established in the United States. The most important thing to keep in mind as we read the series of articles on the business of education is that universal common schools were originally intended to be an essential means by which the American people could move from a federation of colonial states to a new democratic nation based upon the values and principles of a federal constitutional government.

Recent lamentations from advocates of vouchers and privatization usually focus upon students' poor achievement in math, science, or English. But students can excel in those academic studies and achieve successful careers or develop individual prowess but still not be adequately prepared to shoulder the responsibilities and rights that good citizenship requires.

Will vouchers, charter schools, profit-making private schools, or religiously oriented private schools do a better job at universal common education for democratic citizenship than public schools? That is the question.

There was one bright note in the National Assessment of Educational Progress' civics report card. The evidence was clear that students whose teachers had undertaken special training in the subject matter of the national standards for civics and government (issued in 1994) did better than those without such training.

And here is the crux of the matter. The contents of the universally applauded national standards in civics were developed under the auspices of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Center for Civic Education. They were the result of consensus reached by a wide variety of university scholars, teachers, parents, and civic groups. The assessment questions were based upon the national standards, a comprehensive view of what every American student should know and be able to do in order to become a rationally committed democratic citizen.

So what to do? One clear call remains foremost. A common core of civic knowledge and values is the one unifying unum that must characterize all types of American schools and educational institutions from the earliest years through college. The "morality" of democratic citizenship is the common binding agent—not the morality of business, of Hollywood, of sectarian religions, of partisan politics, or of ethnic, racial, or social-class preferences, or even of philanthropy and charity.

Our common civic morality (and it is a morality) has substantive content: It teaches citizens to obey the law; shoulder responsibility for self, family, and community; practice respect and compassion for others of diverse nature; and follow the dictates of equal justice, honesty, and truth. Above all, it requires citizens to promote the public good, protect freedom and individual rights, and practice an enlarged and ennobling version of patriotism.

The best vision of the institution that can do this job is still a public education system devoted to the civic, public-policy business of democratic government. It is the only long- term way in which to develop a citizenry that will make government and politics themselves more democratic than they are now. It is more than time for all good people to come to the aid of education for democratic citizenship and to do this by supporting the rigorous civics teaching set forth in the national standards for civics and government.

R. Freeman Butts

Carmel, Calif.

The writer is the first William F. Russell professor emeritus in the foundations of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City.

Vol. 19, Issue 17, Page 39

Published in Print: January 12, 2000, as Letters
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