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.

Tony Avelar/The Christian Science Monitor/File
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.'

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.

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.

Until the 1960s, high school students commonly took three years of civics. Today, they may take one semester, if that. Unsurprisingly, only 28 percent of 12th graders scored proficient or advanced on the National Assessment for Educational Progress’s civics exam, lower than any subject except history. This civics gap has carried through to the overall electorate: Only one-third of Americans can name all three branches of government; another third cannot name any. The United States ranks 120th out of 169 democracies in voter turnout, well into the bottom third.

Individually, these outcomes are startling. Collectively, they indicate a real threat to what Alexis de Tocqueville called the “great American experiment” of democracy. We cannot have “government by the people” if the people do not know how to govern.

But students do not magically transform into engaged and informed citizens on their 18th birthdays. And they almost certainly will not if schools do not play a role in teaching them about active citizenship.

In critical content areas, such as English, science, and math, schools intentionally teach and develop important skills through consistent practice throughout students’ educational careers. This must also occur with civics: 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.

While it may seem difficult to fit civics into an already over-stretched school day, the benefit of an effective civics education is that it re-enforces the development of other academic subjects. Students can improve their literacy skills through reading policy papers and opinion articles, practice math by analyzing survey information on community problems, and improve their public speaking by meeting with public officials. 

Another way to infuse the school day with these vital civic learning opportunities is to extend it, providing an opportunity for deeper learning in civics and science and for a range of important extracurricular activities that have been slashed from school programs. 

Both candidates’ own life stories provide a platform for a renewed emphasis on civics. Romney gave up multimillion-dollar earnings as head of Bain Capital to enter (much less lucrative) public service as governor of Massachusetts. Obama left an initial job at a consulting firm after graduating from Columbia to take a (low-paying) job as a community organizer in Chicago.

Though their educations equipped both for financial success, they were also taught to value something higher than mere wealth. They also both can infuse citizen engagement back into our national education debate. If we truly want to discuss what’s best for our country’s future, we must also discuss how to educate today’s young people to become informed, engaged, and effective citizens. Our great American experiment demands nothing less. 

Scott Warren is the executive director of Generation Citizen. Iris Chen is the president and CEO of the I Have a Dream Foundation. Prior to this role, she served as Teach For America’s New York City executive director. Eric Schwarz is the co-founder and CEO of Citizen Schools.

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