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Opinion

The threat to American democracy that Romney and Obama aren't talking about

It's called the civics gap. Only one-third of Americans can name all three branches of government. Education reform's focus on high-stakes testing has sidelined civics education. To save American democracy, Romney and Obama must discuss how to help schools educate engaged citizens.

By Scott Warren, Iris Chen, and Eric Schwarz / July 16, 2012

A new government book is seen on a student desk in an eighth grade civics class at West Sylvan Middle School on Oct. 6, 2009 in Portland, Ore. Op-ed contributors Scott Warren, Iris Chen, and Eric Schwarz say: 'We must provide students an opportunity to learn, reflect on, and “do” citizenship, through discussion, student government and newspapers, and by taking real action on issues they face in their own communities.'

Tony Avelar/The Christian Science Monitor/File

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New York and Boston

Speaking to the NAACP last week in Houston, Mitt Romney reiterated his education agenda, calling for increased school choice to allow students to escape the “mediocre schools” that “set [students] up for failure.” Earlier this spring, Mr. Romney joined President Obama and school reformers in calling educational inequity the “civil rights issue of our era,” pledging to make it one of his campaign’s three top pillars.

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That both presidential candidates are committed to education is laudable – our public schools are far from where they need to be. But unfortunately, this latest round of the education debate has once again left out a central purpose of our public education system: creating engaged and informed citizens.

Education advocates have drawn attention to our education problems by spelling out their real and dire consequences. In March, a Council on Foreign Relations report, co-authored by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, warned that “educational failure puts the United States’ future economic prosperity, global position, and physical safety at risk.”

This is all true, and important. But, perhaps even more important, educational failure puts our very democracy at risk.

The current educational reform movement, embraced by both Romney and Mr. Obama, started out with the loftiest of goals (literally, “no child left behind”) and the critical imperative of expanding educational opportunities irrespective of race and income. The focus in education circles has become academic rigor and measurable outcomes, with a push for higher standards, testing, teacher accountability, and school choice.

In some respects, significant progress has been made in recent years on these fronts. We have seen the emergence of high performing charter and traditional public schools; greater visibility and measurement exists around student and teacher performance; and revolutionary teacher hiring and compensation approaches have led to a better talent pipeline. All of this would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

But while this progress is cause for celebration, operating with such a narrow focus has led reformers and policymakers to a classic pendulum-swing problem. The intense drive to boost academic outcomes, which continues to be measured in this country today primarily by standardized test scores – and usually in just math and reading – has developed an unfortunate consequence: Even the best-intentioned education reformers have contributed in recent years to an increasingly narrow focus on academics and basic skills.

One of the first casualties of this narrowing focus was a main force behind the creation of our nation’s school system: civic education. Creating informed and engaged citizens was an original purpose of public schools. Unfortunately, in focusing so intently on academic outcomes in math and literacy (and sometimes science), schools have cast civics aside.

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