Good Citizenship: The Test for Our Times

In 1930, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote a seminal piece for Pictorial Review titled Good Citizenship: The Purpose of Education. In her article, Ms. Roosevelt asserted,

In our schools are now given courses in civics, government, economics, current events. Very few children are as ignorant as I once was. But there still remains a vast amount to be done before we accomplish our first objective — informed and intelligent citizens, and secondly bring about that the realization that we are all responsible for the trend of thought and action of our times.

If that was the good citizenship test for those times, the question becomes would we pass that test in these times. The answer would be an unequivocal no. In fact, there is ample evidence to suggest that our citizenship grades would be lower near the end of the second decade of the 21st century than they were at the beginning of the third decade of the 20th century.

A primary reason for that conclusion has been the disappearance of civics from classrooms in this century. While the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) went up higher on the nation’s educational flagpoles, the civic-related ones were lowered to half-mast in schools and states across this country.

Fortunately, thanks to leadership from groups such as the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, the Lou Frey Institute, and the Jonathan Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University, this condition has not gone unnoticed. Over the past ten years progress has been made to restore civics to its fundamental purpose in education and role in shaping a vibrant democracy.

We provided a top-line assessment of where things stood on civic education in a May 2018 blog. In this post, we examine where things stand now, approximately one year later.

recent publication that brought a national focus on civics was the release of the Civic Education System Map (Map) by the CivXNow Coalition (a coalition of organizations focused on improving civic knowledge and education). The Map presents the findings from a year-long research project with over 7,200 respondents from across the U.S. Among other things, the Map identifies 14 root causes of poor civic education, and identifies important improvement factors including:

  • Professional development for teachers in civic education
  • Education and productive classroom conversations around current events and contentious issues
  • Increased funding for civic education

At the state and local levels, Democracy Prep Charter Schools, and the states of Massachusetts and Illinois are engaged in making a difference on the civics playing field.

Democracy Prep Charter Schools (DPCS or Democracy Prep) is not a recent entrant to civic education. The DCPS educates “citizen scholars.” The first of these charter schools was established in the Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan in 2006. There are now 26 schools in 5 states educating 6,500 elementary, middle and high school citizen scholars. The majority of these students come from low-income families of color.

What calls attention to the DCPS program in 2019 is the release of a research study on the students from DCPS New York city schools who were eligible to vote in 2016. The study found that “Democracy Prep increases the voter registration rates of its students by about 16 percentage points and increases the voting rate of its students by about 12 percentage points.”

The simple message is that schools can make a difference in terms of civic engagement. Massachusetts students will be learning that lesson first-hand in the future, based upon a new civics bill signed into law in November of 2018.

That bill, S2631, is titled An Act to promote and enhance civic engagement. It makes it a requirement for Massachusetts public high schools and school districts with 8th grade students to provide at least one student-led, non-partisan civics project for each student. Those projects can be done individually, in small groups, or by an entire class.

A bill requiring Illinois high school students to complete a semester long course in civics as a graduation requirement was signed into law in August of 2015. Notably the bill called for not just aligning that course with the learning standards for the social science, but also for including a discussion of current and controversial topics and service learning.

Illinois is currently contemplating taking its civic education emphasis a step further. A bill requiring a semester of civics in Illinois middle schools has passed the House and has moved to the Senate with a May 24 deadline for passage.

Shawn P. Healey, Democracy Program Director at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation (McCormick Foundation), championed the high school legislation and is leading the drive for the middle school legislation as well. The McCormick Foundation raised more than $3 million to assist in the implementation of the high school law and has committed to raising the funding to support the middle school legislation also.

In 2019, there are several newer resources available for those interested in developing or improving their civic education and citizenship initiatives. They include:

  • The CivXNow Civic Education System Map(https://www.civxnow.org/systems-map) provides a useful framework that can be employed to analyze civic education interventions that are under consideration. An unique aspect of this tool is that it provides “a visual representation of how different elements of educating K-12 students about civics are connected, how they influence each other, and how changing each might affect the other.”
  • The Citizen U website (https://citizen-u.org/) provides multi-disciplinary civics lessons for elementary, middle school and high school. The site has a monthly newsletter highlighting civic learning and civic action projects. It is funded through a grant from the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources TPS program and operated by the Barat Education Foundation in collaboration with The Constitutional Rights Foundation and DePaul University’s Office of Innovative Professional Learning.
  • The 21st Century Citizenship website (https://21stcitizens.net/) presents a broad range of information relevant to civics in four major categories: learning, communities, citizenship, and technology. The site is operated by the Frank Islam Institute for 21st Century Citizenship (Institute). Beginning this year, the Institute is collaborating with the National Association of State Boards of Education to present civic engagement champion awards to middle school teachers who are making a difference in the classroom and beyond.

There are many others involved in this evolving civic education movement. Many colleges and universities now have civic learning and engagement centers. Nonprofits and philanthropic foundations and individuals are investing in this space. There is a positive momentum and the future looks promising.

In closing, however, let us recall the words of Eleanor Roosevelt.

But there still remains a vast amount to be done before we accomplish our first objective — informed and intelligent citizens, and secondly bring about that the realization that we are all responsible for the trend of thought and action of our times.

By realizing that and continuing to build upon the foundation that has been reconstructed through communication, coalitions and collaboration, we will ensure that this country and its people are equipped to pass the good citizenship test in this 21st century.