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The Civic Standard: An Alternative to No Child Left Behind

By Merle S. McClung — December 01, 2008 7 min read

For the past six years, America’s public schools have been preoccupied by compliance with the No Child Left Behind Act’s cumbersome details and questionable penalties. The most frequent criticism of the federal law is that it is an “unfunded mandate.” If only it were fully funded, the argument goes, the program could work.

The problem, of course, is that underfunding is only half the story. A bigger deficiency is that the law is misconceived. NCLB’s misguided attempts to evaluate student, teacher, and school success solely by standardized-test results in a few subjects have unduly narrowed public education and should be phased out or simply jettisoned.

When this version of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act has run its course, we should consider returning to the broader civic standard of schooling envisioned by the nation’s Founders.

Steve Braden

Today, many argue, or simply assume, that the primary purpose of public education is economic: to get a job, or to get into college in order to get a better job. The economic purpose is to prepare workers to compete in our free-market system. Or, given NCLB’s contemporary iteration, to compete in the global economy.

Whether expressed or simply assumed, this kind of thinking has evolved to make economic considerations the de facto primary purpose of public education. The economic model drives policy and practice in various ways. Like dollars in our market economy, standardized-test scores become, with all their limitations, the primary measure of success. Questionable, dollar-driven spinoffs include for-profit management, performance pay, corporate marketing, soda and snack contracts, and the list goes on.

One could imagine of course that economic (or academic) goals might have been the focus of the Founders, but their conception of education’s primary purpose was never so narrow. They had a broader civic purpose in mind, and saw the nation’s interest in public education as growing out of a desire to make our constitutional democracy work. Perhaps George Washington, in his Farewell Address of 1796, said it best: “Promote then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened” [emphasis added]. Even such fierce political adversaries as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson concurred. Adams: “Education is more indispensable, and must be more general, under a free government than any other.” Jefferson: “It is an axiom in my mind that our liberty can never be safe but in the hands of the people themselves, and that too of the people with a certain degree of instruction.”

The exact words may differ, but the basic concept stressed by the Founders is the same: Preparing the informed and active citizenry is necessary to make our democracy work.

Although reiterated for its rhetorical value ever since, this concept’s implications for priority-setting are rarely considered. The template proposed as the civic standard is embedded in the following statement, with each word having significance for public school policy and practice: The primary purpose of public education is to prepare students to participate effectively as citizens in our constitutional democracy.

What follows is a brief summary of important implications of such a civic standard for the content, process, and assessment of public education.

Content The emphasis on “our constitutional democracy” incorporates the core values of the representational government. Thus, the civic standard requires a basic knowledge of how citizens govern themselves in our democracy: its core values, as delineated, for example, in the Bill of Rights; how these translate into practice; how that practice differs from the ideal; whether the system (including its core values) or the practice should be changed; and the means by which the democracy provides for change and resolution of conflicting ideas.

But the civic standard is not limited to civics and government courses, as it suggests other knowledge and skills necessary for informed citizenship. For example, in interpreting a similar civic standard in his decision in Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York, Justice Leland DeGrasse identified the knowledge and skills that voters and jurors need for productive citizenship: “An engaged, capable voter needs the intellectual tools to evaluate complex issues, such as campaign-finance reform, tax policy, and global warming.” Similarly, he wrote that “jurors may be called on to decide complex matters that require the verbal, reasoning, math, science, and socialization skills that should be imparted in public schools. Jurors today must determine questions of fact concerning DNA evidence, statistical analyses, and convoluted financial fraud, to name only three topics.”

Although creating a formidable, some would say impossible, task for schools, the New York court was not setting minimum standards or outcomes that schools or students must achieve, only the opportunity for such outcomes. Justice DeGrasse’s emphasis on both the cognitive and participatory aspects of productive citizenship helps give specific meaning to the civic standard. In a dumbed-down age when political spin is shameless because it is effective, the Founders’ vision of the informed and active citizenry necessary to make our democracy work is especially relevant.

Process The civic standard’s emphasis on participation has important implications for the process of public education, often called “the hidden curriculum.” No matter how well a school teaches content, what it practices often instructs more. At its most basic level, rote textbook teaching of the content mentioned above, compelled belief, and authoritarian methods will not advance the critical thinking and open discussion that are central to the civic standard.

The standard’s emphasis on participation requires a focus on “people skills” (such as understanding and working with others) in addition to important cognitive skills (such as reading and math). The emphasis on participation also provides a rationale for a broad range of extracurricular activities, including taking part in community programs.

The participatory language of the civic standard also creates a strong presumption in favor of heterogeneous education. While many courses in science and math require separation of students by skill level, others, like most social studies courses, should not be segregated if the goal is civic-standard participation rather than simply raising test scores. Thus, even if it could be shown that segregation of students by ability, race, or sex would improve various groups’ test scores, the more important question would be what policy or practice might best advance the broader civic-standard values.

Assessment The civic standard’s emphasis on effective participation requires qualitative evaluation. The participatory skills and values inherent in this mandate are subtle and behavioral, and are best evaluated by the observation and judgment of the classroom teacher. Participation and judgment often are considered “soft” areas in education and are easily denigrated, especially if reduced to their most simplistic level. Yet we consider them essential in electing our representatives and hiring employees, and would not think of doing these tasks solely on the basis of standardized-test scores. Why then would we deliberately narrow the scope of evaluation for students, teachers, and schools?

Both quantitative and qualitative measures of progress are necessary, and should be used judiciously, recognizing the limitations of each. The civic standard provides a rationale to help restore a more sensible balance between quantitative and qualitative measures. The role of educators also is enhanced with the increased need for professional judgment, making a teaching career more attractive to those now discouraged by the regimentation and penalties of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Balancing quantitative with qualitative assessments, like many other policy and practice implications of the civic standard, will strike many readers as too obvious to be worth mentioning. But it should be mentioned, with the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind on the nation’s 2009 agenda, and with some proposing that the law’s testing requirements be extended to apply to high school and college students.

Before doing this, we should ask ourselves whether the various trade-offs we would have to make are worth the marginally higher test scores claimed by proponents of No Child Left Behind. A preferable approach would encourage states and schools to find the best ways to implement and advance the civic standard.

A version of this article appeared in the December 03, 2008 edition of Education Week as The Civic Standard: An Alternative To No Child Left Behind

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