Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy, and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood.—Martin Luther King Jr., Letter From Birmingham Jail (1963)
This year, educators and their fellow citizens celebrate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s ethereal “I Have a Dream” speech and his prophetic “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” The unbridled urgency of King’s passion for justice almost jumps from the page, transcending time and inspiring us today to build civically engaging schools for all our children.
In 1963, King penned his letter on the margins of a newspaper in the confines of his “narrow” jail cell during the pivotal civil rights march on Birmingham, Ala. His still-unfulfilled ultimatum, “Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy,” could be the mission statement for the swelling 21st-century “new civics” movement, which is pressing to restore civics in America’s schools.
Civics proponents’ wishes have fallen mostly on deaf ears. Through promotion of the Common Core State Standards, the Obama administration and its allies orchestrated one of the most dramatic assertions of federal power into K-12 education since Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, but failed to promote civics where it counts—in the common core’s package of standards and assessments. These documents determine what will be taught, and what will not be taught, to more than 40 million children across the United States. Because the core is barren of civics—the word does not appear in the 66-page standards document for English/language arts—the imperatives of the “not tested, not taught” mindset will diminish time for citizenship education, as it did under the No Child Left Behind Act.
In honor of Martin Luther King’s faith in education’s democratizing power, we should insist that civics be added to the core’s standards and unfinished assessments. A first civics standard could cover democracy, scaffolding K-12 students toward expertise in democratic citizenship. Instead of high-stakes tests, the core could promote authentic assessments, such as participation in a model United Nations simulation.
A half-century after his iconic address in Washington, King’s dream seems worse than deferred. It seems forgotten. Racial and socioeconomic segregation in K-12 schools is now worse than it was in the 1970s. In the NCLB era, nearly 14 million students dropped out of school (an average of 7,000 per day), and gaps between the academic performance of white and minority students persist. In too many communities, a specter of hopelessness and violence haunts young people. A student I was fond of was shot, in the back, this spring while I was writing this essay. Since 2008 in Chicago, more than 530 young people under the age of 21 have been killed.
NCLB’s high-stakes, civics-free stance absolutely failed our children and our democracy. In 2010, approximately three-quarters of the 4th, 8th, and 12th graders who took the National Assessment of Educational Progress civics test failed to score “proficient.”
Time is a stern master. Learning to operate democracy’s levers requires sustained K-12 attention. But under NCLB, precious minutes for social studies disappeared as principals anxious about “adequate yearly progress” narrowed curricula to test-prep kids in math and literacy boot camps. This ongoing trend, which is disproportionately common in schools in poor communities, contributes to the widening civics gap. Will the core be NCLB redux?
If so, it will be because of “the appalling silence of good people,” as King suggested in his letter. How much longer can we ignore the U.S. Supreme Court’s mandate in Brown that “education ... is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms”?
Civics education is the silver bullet for America’s schools. It is a pedagogical imperative because it often fuels tremendous academic growth by stimulating and leveraging the dynamic interplay of cognitive and, especially, affective, or emotional, learning. In a 10-paper research compendium published in 2011, the American Enterprise Institute asserted that civic literacy was just as critical to student success as literacy in math and English.
If our schools are nurseries of democracy, we must patiently teach our children the complex and rewarding arts of citizenship."
Civics benefits teachers and administrators as well as students. It is an interdisciplinary silo-buster—civics texts and principles easily link all subjects and grades while aligning with the common core’s emphasis on formulating evidence-based claims from nonfiction readings. In 23 years as a Seattle high school teacher, I’ve seen civics-centric history and English classes empower perhaps thousands of low-income, predominantly black students to make enormous intellectual, personal, and academic strides. Civics involves the study of citizenship, government, ethics, current events, and politics. It engages and empowers struggling learners—especially hard-to-reach boys—because it is verbal, current, and contentious.
Such will be the atmosphere this fall when teachers address the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and frame the case’s issues of race, law, and politics within the thematic structures of their courses. Students’ voices need to be heard. By confronting sometimes combustible “teachable moments” like the Martin case, civics-minded teachers honor their students’ concerns, which helps build meaningful, productive classroom relationships. Yet without civics standards and school cultures that encourage teachers to use class time for such seminal current events, tragedies like the Trayvon Martin case are too often glossed over or ignored completely. When this happens, everyone loses. But thoughtful analysis challenges students to develop, and back up, their own civic credo or code. This is personalized education writ large.
When civics becomes service, magic happens. In 11 years of overseeing students’ service-learning projects at our state legislature, I’ve seen at-risk students regularly stand up for the common good. For example, in 2007, my juniors petitioned, lobbied, and testified at the state Capitol to help pass legislation creating a college-bound scholarship for low-income students. Since then, this scholarship has helped many of their younger siblings and friends attend college.
Without civics, the common core is simply a gilded NCLB. As the 18-year-old King wrote while attending Morehouse College: “Intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.” Civics captures this—it offers thoughtful analysis of democracy’s timeless tensions, which often unearths students’ higher character as they learn to value integrity, compassion, and their unique conception of patriotism and the common good.
But mark “character” absent from the common-core. In its website, the core’s narrow mission statement sounds less like a set of learning expectations for children than a parody of a sterile business plan. It talks about preparing America’s students “for success in college and careers” so “our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.” Really? Wouldn’t preparing America’s students in order “to be successful, virtuous members of America’s workforce and democracy” be more appropriate? As Abraham Lincoln warned, “The philosophy of the schoolroom in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.”
A citizenship component in the common standards would promote a more open-minded, student-centered philosophy of education for the entire core cohort. While civics in the core is an imperfect solution, it is a viable, scalable one because it accesses a system with an enormous infrastructure, corporate backing, and absolute support in the Obama administration. And, should the common core collapse, at least civics will have been woven into lessons nationwide.
A corollary approach is to invite David Coleman, the College Board’s chief executive officer, to include civics in the board’s realignment of the SAT with the core.
And, what is not taught is neither learned nor lived. If our schools are the nurseries of democracy, we must patiently teach our children the complex and rewarding arts of citizenship. Soon, they will reinvigorate our schools and our polity with their blunt honesty, fresh thinking, and, especially, their infectious idealism.
In his letter from Birmingham, when King invokes the Brown decision’s rallying cry, “Justice too long delayed is justice denied,” he is speaking to us. He is challenging us, a half-century later, to finally give our nation’s children the skills and the platform to “make real the promise of democracy.”
Let’s heed his call. Let’s let their voices be heard!
A version of this article appeared in the August 07, 2013 edition of Education Week as Civics in the Core