The Wrong Way to Talk about Civics Education

We just can’t do it. As educators and Americans, that is, we can’t agree about what “civics education” is supposed to be doing. We do know one thing, though. The way to understand it is not by doing what one pundit recently attempted.civics textbooks

Why is it so hard to teach civics? As I’ve argued in these pages and in books such as The Other School Reformers, the problem isn’t that no one cares. It’s not that people think schools shouldn’t teach kids to be good citizens. Rather, the problem is that Americans can’t agree on what “being a good citizen” entails.

Think about it: How enthusiastic would you be if your tax dollars supported student activism in a cause with which you disagreed? Say, for example, that kids in a high-school civics class took their project to the streets, protesting against a local abortion clinic? Or, for the other side, what if students marched out their civic responsibilities in a gay pride parade? Either way, real-life student civic engagement is not usually something that controversy-averse public school administrators can support.

None of that is the point this morning, however. One civics-ed commentator recently demonstrated another related challenge when it comes to discussing civics education. Robert Pondiscio of the marketeering Fordham Institute recently unintentionally underlined why it is so difficult to know what students are really doing in schools, when it comes to civics education or anything else.

That wasn’t Pondiscio’s point, of course. Rather, he was trying to articulate a need for a more traditionalist vision of proper civics education. He was hoping to push teachers to teach

A lifelong love of liberty. Of freedom and the rule of law. A lifelong love of America.

Pondiscio thinks schools aren’t doing this. And he wants to prove it. That’s where he runs into trouble.

As school-watchers know, it is infamously difficult to know what goes on behind the classroom door. Creationists warn their followers that public schools are cramming gay-friendly atheism down children’s throats under the guise of science classes. Atheists fret about religious zealots using public schools to cram hate-filled fundamentalism down children’s throats.

So how did Mr. Pondiscio come to his conclusion that public schools are not teaching kids to love America? The wrong way. He looked at the mission statements of America’s 100 biggest public school districts. What did he find?

Well over half—fifty-nine of the one hundred largest U.S. school districts—make no mention of civics or citizenship whatsoever in their mission or vision statements. . . .  The words “patriotic” and “patriotism” do not appear at all. Neither does “America” or “American.” Not even once.

Proof that American teachers are not teaching students to love this great land? Of course not. If Mr. Pondiscio had instead asked 100 of America’s best teachers to paraphrase their districts’ mission statements, he would have found that zero of them could do so.

On the other hand, if he asked 100 social-studies teachers if they tried to help students understand what Pondiscio calls “a sense of gratitude, for the blessings of liberty, our Constitutional freedoms, what it’s taken to secure those things for us, and for thoughtful pride and patriotism”, he’d find much different results. I’ll bet dollars to donuts that most American social-studies teachers out there teach some version of those goals.

So why bother with school-district mission statements? Like so much other bad punditry about America’s public schools, writers can use mission statements if they want to make a point. In reality, though, district mission statements have only the tiniest effect on real teaching.

The real lesson here should be a sober warning about the difficulties of understanding what really goes on in America’s schools. If we want to do more than rile people up, we need to be humble about what we think we know about real teachers and real classrooms.

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