On Deadline: Is high school 'civics' to blame for America's political quagmire, and naiveté? | January 17, 2014 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - January 17, 2014

On Deadline: Is high school 'civics' to blame for America's political quagmire, and naiveté?

by Jay Thorwaldson

A new study from Stanford University drifted through my inbox recently.

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."

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com and/or jaythor@well.com.


Like this comment
Posted by Molly
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jan 18, 2014 at 9:35 am

Unfortunately, the author of this piece is wrong, Palo Alto High Schools (both Gunn and Paly) indeed teach "Civics", it is actually called American Government and it is taught in the 10th grade as opposed to the 12th grade. The class teaches all of the things that this author proposes and as such this entire piece is clearly not well-researched and an inaccurate portrayal of the curriculum of Palo Alto High Schools. Please, do your homework.

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Posted by Alan Stivers
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 18, 2014 at 11:18 am

It is a stretch to blame problems in our national governance on the exclusion (or inclusion) of a particular high school course. I don't believe in silver bullets. If I were to change one thing it would be to have people more easily let go of self interest when engaging with others in any context. Current culture is trending against this. I can't tell you how to impart this skill, though.

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Posted by paly parent
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 18, 2014 at 12:44 pm

A semester of American Government/Civics is actually a California High School Graduation requirement - I second the comment on researching your topic before it goes to print.

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Posted by Maria
a resident of another community
on Jan 18, 2014 at 1:15 pm

[Post removed.]

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Posted by Ms.T
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jan 19, 2014 at 9:03 am

Glad someone pointed out the failure to research ahead of me. I'd also add that while Woj's journalism focus is a good goal and relevant, it's not really an answer to the problem. Journalism is essential, but unfortunately I don't think there's a reason to think students who know journalism will naturally be more civic-minded. There's too much opinion journalism and muckraking these days and every blogger with a camera and an agenda can be a "journalist" - and even gather good bias-confirming bits of info from likeminded individuals with smartphone cameras... etc., etc. Just because you know journalism and know Woj doesn't mean that's *the* answer. If there's a solution, it probably lies in enhancing the curriculum in place, and persuading the public to support community journalism, community forums, non-profit civic organizations, etc. Yes, I think journalism is part of the solution, but not necessarily trying to turn everyone into a former student journalist.

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Posted by A. Davis
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jan 19, 2014 at 1:59 pm

I would wager that the American Government curriculum at Palo Alto High School does many things right. Included are concepts that Thorwaldson mentions in his article: the mechanisms of government, campaign finance, the corruption of power, and the manipulation of legislative procedure. In addition, students read the Constitution, they argue foundational Supreme Court cases, and they take positions on a variety of contemporary issues ranging from the NYPD's controversial "stop and frisk" policy to the merits of affirmative action in the workplace and in higher education.

To be sure, teachers, schools, and administrators can always improve. Indeed, building more robust civic participation among our youth will take more collaboration not only among educators, but also among parents, employers, and community leaders. Yet, to say that high school civics is to blame for America's political woes is to grossly oversimplify the problem. After all, students at Palo Alto High School spend a maximum of three hours and fifty minutes in their Government classes every week. If we want to follow the ambitious recommendations of the report Thorwaldson mentions, then we need to give educators more time to deliver the knowledge, skills, and values that the report describes. A quick look at the California History Social Science Content Standards for "Principles of American Democracy" illustrates this point. Few teachers, and few college professors for that matter, could manage to convey each standard effectively in a heterogeneous classroom during an 18-week semester. Ask the majority of teachers what they need most, and very often the answer is more time.

My hope is that we can confront the problem of civic disengagement among youth with an honest perspective. While schools and teachers can certainly do a better job, real change will come from a structural shift in how we educate our children both in and out of school. Hopefully, more people will engage with this pressing civic issue.

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Posted by Maria
a resident of another community
on Jan 19, 2014 at 2:22 pm

"My hope is that we can confront the problem of civic disengagement among youth with an honest perspective."

What does that mean?

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Posted by Palo Verde Parent
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 19, 2014 at 2:41 pm

@ADavis - Well said. The government course both of my children took were rich and in depth. The supreme court cases/debates were a favorite and I think they left the course with a solid understanding of how our government work.

@Maria - It means that if we want to have a conversation about civic disengagement among youth then we should do so using facts. Palo Alto school teach and require a Government course. Whoever wrote the article did not do enough research. Did he look at the curriculum at our high schools? did he talk to current government teachers? did he talk to students who have taken the course? Clearly this article did not present the facts (which in my opinion indicates a lack of "honest perspective").

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Posted by Maria
a resident of another community
on Jan 19, 2014 at 3:00 pm

"It means that if we want to have a conversation about civic disengagement among youth then we should do so using facts."

What "facts" are you referring to?

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Posted by A concerned citizen
a resident of another community
on Jan 19, 2014 at 11:09 pm

I find this piece to be disturbing on a number of levels. First, it cites a study that isn't readily available and therefore difficult to verify. I would love to read the study and authenticate it for myself and test its veracity before I make any permanent judgements. Usually a piece such as this one that doesn't allow the reader to look into the underlying study that drove this in the first place is suspect on its face since the reader can't make his or her own independent judgements.

That being said, the general claims that Thorwaldson makes about Civics classes in general aren't necessarily false and what he is asking for does have merit. Civics or Government classes should strive for all of the goals that are outlined here and it would make sense that many schools across the nation are failing to meet those standards. That isn't much of a stretch. However, what does seem to be a bit of a stretch is whether or not Palo Alto Schools specifically are failing in these ways.

It does not appear that Thorwaldson has done his home work (as many have wrote) on whether Palo Alto and Gunn High Schools teach this class in the first place. Clearly, both school teach a Government class, as mandated by the State of California. They clearly have the class outlined in their course catalogs which can be found online and by looking at the Graduation requirements posted on PAUSD's website. Visiting each school's respective website's clearly shows the names of the teachers that teach this course to 10th grade students. In fact, Palo Alto High School seems to be taking the lead in the use of so-called "LibGuides" which have the actual course materials posted on them for all to see and use. It clearly shows some of what these teachers are doing in their classrooms and what is expected of students in those classes. Much of what is posted on these websites shows clear and convincing evidence that what is going on in these classes is exactly what Thorwaldson is saying isn't happening. To restate the obvious, clearly Thorwaldson didn't do his home work.

What is equally disturbing is that Thorwaldson is quoting Esther Wojcicki as being someone who is filling in the gap so-to-speak by using her Journalism classes as the vehicle to achieve those goals. Whether or not she does this isn't the point although I would contend that the "journalism" that is presented by the Campanile shows the opposite to be true. What I think is the larger issue is that either Wojcicki is willing to throw her colleagues under the bus despite the fact that they are clearly doing their jobs well or that she was misquoted. Either scenario does not paint a very good picture and I would venture to guess that this clearly indicates that Thorwaldson did not do his homework, but that his entire premise that Palo Alto Schools aren't teaching Civics is clearly false and this entire piece should regarded the same way Thorwaldson regards Civics classes across the nation: Failing.

In conclusion, I believe that this article does have one redeeming quality and that is the fact that it highlights that Civics and Government classes are extremely valuable and very important to the growth of young people in our communities. I just hope that in the future, those who choose to write on this subject do so in a way that meets the expectations that we set out for our students.

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Posted by Heather Malin
a resident of Stanford
on Jan 27, 2014 at 3:27 pm

I'm coming in late to respond to the comments from "A concerned citizen." The report cited in this article is not a study. It is a report developed from a meeting of leading scholars, researchers, and policy experts who have dedicated their careers to the issue of civic education. It's accessible to anyone, and is available here: Web Link.

Aside from that, I agree with concerned citizen that the issue of specifically what civics courses are taught at Palo Alto and Gunn is beside the point of the report, even if they are most relevant to the readers of Palo Alto Online. In fact, the concern if anything, is about the uneven availability of high quality civics education across the U.S. The report was created as a call to educators and policy makers, to revitalize civic education so that young people are not only well informed about civics, but also provided the civic values and skills that enable and motivate full participation in civic life.

Palo Alto high schools are likely doing a better job than most at civics education, but as commenter A. Davis mentions, there is the ongoing problem that schools everywhere don't have enough time to teach civics. Educational priorities have shifted dramatically in the past few decades, such that the goal of developing citizens falls low on the list for many schools in the U.S. The damage of this shift in priorities is evident in the civic and political climate of our nation. When teachers complain that there isn't enough time to teach more civics, that is really a call to look at our priorities. How important is it that all young people learn how to be engaged and knowledgeable citizens?