A Good Day for Civics Education

by Peter Wright, Policy & Programs Officer

For keen observers of education policy and political junkies, last week’s State Board of Education Meeting was everything we hoped for.  While there were only about half the number of speakers signed up to testify as there were for last January’s dynamic meeting, board members, superintendents, community advocates, parents, and busses full of students all came together in Sacramento to have their say on the Local Control Funding Formula. 

I was particularly happy to see the students taking interest in this transformative new policy.  A dominant theme of the student testimonies I listened to was, “WE WANT A MEANINGFUL VOICE IN CONTRIBUTING TO THE LOCAL CONTROL AND ACCOUNTABILITY PLANS THAT WILL DETERMINE OUR EDUCATIONAL FUTURES!” 

Many young people delivered this message to the Board with conviction, poise, and tact.  Spending a few hours in the board room listening to student testimony made me optimistic about the future of California democracy and political civility.  

At least since the time of Socrates, it has been widely believed that education is the foundation of a free society.  In the United States, we count on our education system to fuel the American dream and perpetuate our democratic system of government.  After all, our American democracy depends on the wide participation of the citizenry and how to politically participate must be taught and learned.  Political participation is learned best when it is an integral and ongoing part of young people’s lives.

I worry that currently, on average, students are not graduating from our California schools with the knowledge they need to participate effectively in politics.  Late night talk show hosts and academic studies routinely demonstrate that citizens cannot explain simple aspects of the democratic process or even name their elected representatives. 

 Perhaps most troubling is that the National Assessment of Education Progress’ Civics Assessment reveals a sharp achievement gap between white students and their African American and Latino peers.  If civics knowledge provides an advantage in the political process, this civics-learning gap suggests a disturbing future for democratic equality.  Our education system may be preparing white citizens to have a louder political voice than African Americans and Latinos.

I do not naively believe that spending one good day at a State Board of Education meeting will magically enhance civics education for students across the state or close race-based and ethnic-based achievement gaps, but it is a good reminder of what makes for effective teaching and learning.  We all learn best when we feel the material we are learning is relevant to our own lives.  What is the point of learning something we will never use?  Civics education is no exception.  When those students stood in front of the State Board to give their testimonies, the political process was suddenly completely pertinent to their lives and it is my hope that the experience will inspire lifelong civic engagement. 

As educators, we can reflect on this experience and be thoughtful about how to make civics education real for our students.  Political equality is essential to California’s future and helping students find their political voice in the classroom is a good place to start.

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