The study concluded that high school "civics" classes across the nation generally are failing.
This was not news to me. It was common knowledge a half century ago at Los Gatos High School, where the civics teacher tended to worship any person who held an elective office. She even brought in the local dog catcher — then an elected post — to speak about his duties.
Worse, she would brook no probing or critical questions anytime in class.
The shocking thing to me about the new study is that civics is still being taught at all.
Palo Alto schools no longer teach civics. Instead, students are required to take Econ 11 and to choose one class from a list of electives: macroeconomics, psychology, sociology, U.S. foreign policy, ethnic studies or an introduction to general studies.
But do those courses really cover how America works, as civics was intended to do? Are Palo Alto students being short-changed the same way students in civics classes elsewhere are? Perhaps some of the teachers (or students) of those Palo Alto elective classes could elaborate on how economics or psychology, say, cover how government works, or is supposed to work.
Yet any of those alternative courses sound better than civics, which is supposed to outline the mechanisms of our American system of representative democracy, locally to nationally. Civics usually includes how bills should move through the state Legislature or Congress, and how elections work.
Some of the better civics classes, or better teachers, may include (if permitted) some aspects of how things really work: the role of the well-funded lobbyists, how campaign funding tips the balance between public interest and self-interest, the corruption of power, and how legislation can be blocked by manipulation and procedures.
Both sides of the political spectrum are vulnerable to the above kind of Realpolitik, meaning how things really are, that "the law of power governs the world of states just as the law of gravity governs the physical world," the term's German originator wrote in 1853.
But the Stanford report pushes a step beyond educating students about the real-world. It seeks a new civics curriculum that inspires students to participate in civic life, to become engaged in society in some way.
With its focus on professional skills and the know-how to pass state tests, the U.S. educational system is falling down on its job to help young people become vital members of society, the report asserts.
Its co-authors are professors William Damon and Jonathan Rabinowitz of the Stanford Graduate School of Education, and others, including Heather Malin, a research associate with the Center on Adolescence, of which Damon is director. The report was published by the Center on Adolescence and the Center for Multicultural Education at the University of Washington, Seattle, with funding from the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation. It was drafted by leading thinkers in civic education from across the political spectrum who gathered at Stanford early in 2013.
Yet its release coincided with Thanksgiving, and seems to have been overshadowed, ironically, by the media coverage of our national heritage and related sports and other events. Symbol versus substance.
No matter. It will be presented at several education conferences this year.
There are bigger issues than just redefining and reforming civics education.
"It's an urgent issue if this country wants to succeed as a democracy," Damon said in a release announcing the report.
Teacher involvement and administrative support will be the key, the report states. It calls on schools to take greater responsibility for civic education that exposes students to the values, skills and knowledge necessary for full participatory citizenship.
The report says civics involves more than just facts about democracy, citizenship, government and global concerns. Curriculum must also incorporate a commitment to instill in students democratic ideals and methods to help them participate constructively in civic affairs and the political process.
"A common grounding in the history, values and workings of the American constitutional tradition is essential to ensure access and dedication to citizenship for all students in our increasingly diverse society," the report says. Fundamental concepts of American democracy and civic life should be included: liberty, equality, opportunity, justice, independence and interdependence.
New civics must also impart an understanding of power — who has it, how one gets it, and what it means in a self-governing society — as well as an awareness of contemporary global civic issues, the report urges.
That means civics educators need to stop shying away from issues that may involve political and ideological controversy. It urges educators "to get their hands dirty" and allow students to experience "the nitty-gritty of democracy" and learn to address it constructively.
"Democracy in practice is emotionally exhilarating and often conflict-ridden. Civic education should reflect this," the report says.
The baseline philosophy of the report is that teachers themselves are the experts: "We advocate for them to set up collaborative groups to explore and implement the bigger ideas that are being proposed," co-author Heather Malin said.
Damon said he hopes that the document will be used as a starting point by anyone with a stake in civic education, including policymakers and parents.
One approach to achieving the goals outlined in the new report is being tried by Esther Wojcicki, a longtime and nationally recognized journalism teacher at Palo Alto High School. Journalism, properly taught, can fill in the real-world gaps of traditional civics courses or the absence of civics as in Palo Alto schools, she feels.
"Students are not being taught how to engage in society which is why I am trying to expand journalism to all kids nationwide. That teaches them to pay attention to what is going on in the world and have their say.
"It is a tough sell though because most administrators do not want to know what kids think. In fact, they want them to be quiet and just get out of school."