October 2013 podcast: New study shows problems and possibilities of civic engagement in schools

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This month, Peter Levine, executive director of Circle, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, talks with Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte about a new study on the state of civic education.

Frank LoMonte: Welcome to another edition of the Student Press Law Center’s monthly podcast. A show about the legal rights and responsibilities of student journalists. I’m Frank LoMonte, I’m the executive director of the Student Press Law Center. For more information about our work you can visit our website www.SPLC.org and if you’ve got a question about you’re legal rights and responsibilities we encourage you to get in touch with us, splc@splc.org or 703-807-1904.

Well, the Student Press Law Center was founded in 1974 as a vehicle to promote civic engagement of young people through the vehicle of journalism and in recent years there has been more and more attention and urgency being paid to the deficit of meaningful opportunities for civic participation in our schools.

Our guest today, Peter Levine of Tufts University is working to change all that. He’s here to talk about a new report on the commission of youth voting and civic knowledge that was released by Tufts recently. It’s titled “All Together Now: Collaboration and Innovation for Youth Engagement” and it talks about the problems and the possibilities of civic engagement in schools, including the role that journalism can play in helping young people get better prepared for participation as voters and as citizens.

So, Peter Levine, I’d like to welcome you to the show and this is a special pleasure. Peter is a really distinguished authority on the subject of youth civic engagement and has just come out with a terrific book, “We are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: the Promise of Civic Renewal in America” that I hope to give you another change to plug at the end of our discussion. Peter has been an active participant in the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools and Street Law, you name it, any nonprofit organization that has to do with youth civic participation and Peter has had a leading role in.

So, welcome and thanks for being here. Let me just get you to start off by discussing what you do at Tufts University with the Circle Project that you have been director of since, I believe, 2006 right?

Peter Levine: Thanks, Frank. You’re way too kind, but I certainly appreciate the chance to talk about this stuff and your audience is very important to us. This is a great opportunity to kind of a great opportunity to promote discussion of the results of our study.

Circle stands for the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement and we are a national research center. We study young people’s civic education and civic engagement pretty broadly, including young people up to age 29 and thinking about civic education to voting rights to AmeriCorps. We look at it kind of broadly.

Frank LoMonte: So, we’ve got a link to this report, the All Together Now report, up on our SPLC’s blog, but maybe you can give us just a little setup for how this group came about. This is a very distinguished group of professors and scholars who work in the field of youth civic engagement and participation and they have come out with this report under the heading of the Commission on Youth Voting and Civic Knowledge. So what’s the commission and how did it come about?

Peter Levine: It was a scholarly group, you’re right, and of course scholars don’t have a monopoly on wisdom, but we thought it would be interesting and valuable at this moment to pull together scholars from a whole range of fields to think about youth engagement.

I guess in some ways the immediate reason was the 2012 election. We put it together before the election, but it’s already pretty clear that youth enthusiasm and engagement was down compared to 2008 and that turned out to be true and more generally, 2012 seemed like a moment to, with the presidential campaign and everything else that goes around that including all the media circus around a campaign, was a good moment to take stock.

So, the commission had a pretty broad mandate to think about anything and everything that might encourage young people to be engaged with a focus on politics, you know, politics defined broadly as much more than just voting—but I guess we were not as interested in community service which is something else that is worth talking about but this was about young people’s engagement with politics, news, issues, voting, etc.

Frank LoMonte: Right. Well, one of the things I really like about this report is it does not single out young people as being uniquely uninformed or ignorant. It’s not all about how dumb young people are, in fact, it points out that no age group has a monopoly on being misinformed about basic principals about how government works. So that being said, why are we focusing on young people?

Peter Levine: Well, you know, the short answer to why we are focusing on young people is because we can actually do more to enhance their knowledge and their engagement and even their ethics than we can for older people. First of all, we’ve got young people. They’re in schools. They have to be there. We can engage them. Also, they’re more malleable. They’re more influenceable—in good ways and bad ways.

So, I don’t start with the premise that there’s something wrong with kids today. That’s not really where we’re coming from. I mean, if that were true, that would be true, and we would say it. But, I don’t really see evidence of it. So many of the trends are actually remarkably flat over time. For example, voter turnout it really pretty flat since young people got the right to vote in 1972 and the best measure of young people’s civic and political knowledge, the federal measure the NAEP assessment is actually remarkably flat since the early 1970’s

So, I don’t really start with either the premise that what’s wrong with kids today or the premise that the kids today are wonderful, the millennials are going to come along and save us. Actually, my idea is more that, and I think my colleagues’ idea is more that we always have an issue with young people because we always have to be conscious and deliberate about engaging them and if we’re worried about the state of American democracy in general, we’ve got to put a lot of attention to young people because we can really influence them.

Frank LoMonte: Sure, that makes good sense. The report has several observations about the value of discussing controversial issues as part of the school day. Why did you determine that that was valuable and what did the commission observe to be some of the obstacles that might inhibit that discussion.?

Peter Levine: Well, we didn’t invent this. We did confirm it. We had additional data that sort of showed the connection, but there’s really a lot of evidence over many years that one of the best ways to be a good citizen is to talk about current events in class. In class because it’s good for the discussion to be moderated and for there to be some expectations that you need to have evidence for what you say, you need to do your homework, you need to be civil, and a teacher can create that environment. But there should also be—to your professional interests—there should also be freedom.

Kids should be able to take the positions they want to take.

So, not just us, but a lot of people over many years have shown that that’s just an excellent form of civic education and it is pretty rare. Most kids say they remember doing it sometimes, but I think they are thinking about that one time in tenth grade. Every study that looks at the prevalence of that kind of teaching, finds that it’s actually very rare and, unfortunately, very unequal. So it’s much more likely in an excellent, high performing, and affluent school system that you’ll have a lot of that kind of discussion. It’s very unlikely in a stressed school.

Frank LoMonte: And the report talks about the perception that educators have as to whether they would or would not be well supported whether they introduced controversial political topics, which I thought was a very interesting observation.

Peter Levine: Yeah. So, one of the obstacles is teachers don’t feel very supported and guess there’s a double problem. One is that they’re not supported by the assessments, tests, standards, everything that holds them accountable because discussing controversial issues just isn’t measured or required. If there’s any kind of test, it’s going to be about the nitty-gritty of government process, like how many votes does it take to get a bill through Congress, rather than the ability to discuss with peers.

But then the other part of it is the political push back because quite a few parents and adults are ready to pounce when they see a discussion in school that they think is offensive to them. So, in our study, fully one quarter of teachers or American government, thought that the parents of their students would object if politics came into the class.

Frank LoMonte: In an American government class.

Peter Levine: We’re talking about an American government class. You know, that means most parents would not complain. So, I should say that. But, a quarter is enough for a chilling effect, as I think you would say in First Amendment law.

Frank LoMonte: And I am showing my institutional bias here, but I was definitely struck by the connection that the commission drew between consuming and creating high-quality news and being a more effectively participating citizen. Can you talk about that connection and I guess, given that connection, what should our school policy makers be doing about it?

Peter Levine: Right. So, here’s a place where we could be kind of more optimistic, because it’s been a little gloomy so far. I think kids have always learned from being news producer and you’ve been protecting their right to do so. The traditional vehicles are mainly the student newspaper and the school magazines and so on. They now have a much broader variety of media and means to be news producers and it’s not just the technology, the fact that they can now blog or do mashups of videos, but it’s also that there’s a kind of more open media environment where a kid could do a news story and really make a difference to an issue. You actually defend those people when they get in trouble, but sometimes they don’t even get in trouble they’re just helpful.

In some ways, the news media environment is more open to creativity now and that’s great because kids are at the cutting edge of being creative with news media. They do need guidance. Not everything is equally valuable. They do need to be steered toward more important issues rather than trivialities and stuff, but I’m actually pretty excited at the potential of news media creation in the twenty-first century for kids.

Frank LoMonte: Yeah, absolutely. And the report does, in what I think is very useful about this report that separates it from you know the academic chin stroking that just sits on shelf, is that you do have some really concrete recommendations for families, for schools, for state policy-makers. So I guess in the realm of encouraging the discussion of controversial issues in the classroom and in the realm of encouraging students to be consuming and creating good, quality media that is addressed to matters of public concern, what are some of the recommendations or takeaways? What could schools and the rest of us be doing better?

Peter Levine: I’m glad to address that. There’s a lot of different things we could do. I think, for people outside of schools, who aren’t either educators or policy-makers, probably the most important thing is to be supportive of the discussion of controversial current events in schools.

I mean, there’s so many cases where a particular discussion is sensitive to somebody and that becomes a lighting rod for criticism. But I hear no voices saying that they actually want to have discussions of current events in schools and I don’t think, you know, very many superintendents get a line of parents outside their door saying, “I want to make sure my kid is getting a chance to talk about controversial issues.” They get every other kind of pressure they don’t get that.

So, I think if you’re just a citizen or a parent or a kid, you should be advocating for the discussion of current events. You don’t have to lead with controversy because that might just get us in trouble, but free discussion of current events is going to include some controversy.

I don’t want to answer at too long length but there is a lot that educators and policy makers can do as well and perhaps the one thing I would emphasize is that our standards for civics, which after all are regulatory documents, they do say what must be taught in schools, they really do not emphasize the discussion of current events.

They emphasize an immense number of facts that students are supposed to know. They result from excretion over the decades that people decided kids should know and nobody ever takes a fact out of the standard and there’s no time, and it’s very bad politics because the fact that something is in the standard is taken as the government cares about it so you can’t take it out without offending somebody. So, 9/11 happens, everybody has to have 9/11 in the standard and if it’s not there it’s because you don’t care about 9/11.

So, we end up with 95 pages literally of facts in California that social studies teachers are supposed to cover and so we need to revise our standards so that they’re much simpler, shorter, and much more about the discussion of current events.

Frank LoMonte: Right. Boy, that seems like a really good way to teach memorization, but not a really good way to teach critical thinking at all.

Peter Levine: Right.

Frank LoMonte: More generally, there’s definitely a sense that civics as a discipline is being squeezed out of the public school day and you’ve referred to one reason why, which is the difficulty in testing it and the fact that it doesn’t show up in standardized tests nearly with the frequency that math or science or English does. What else is out there, I guess, what are the other head winds into which civics education is sailing right now and is there anything that can be done about that?

Peter Levine: Yeah, I think you hit the biggest one, but it’s true that the very idea of civic education is more and more controversial. So, that if I go around advocating civic education, and so do you, but I get more and more skepticism or cynicism about it “aren’t you just trying to teach the kids to be democrats or the ‘capital D democrats’” or “aren’t you just trying to make them like you” or whatever. So, there seems to be less trust and more cynicism about the very idea of civic education.

Then parallel to that is just an obsession about preparing kids for the twenty-first century workforce and the idea that civics is an afterthought and we don’t really need that to have kids prepared for the workforce. We are trying to do some research to show that civics is good preparation for the workforce and that might help but, there’s a fundamental problem if people think that the purpose of schools is to produce workers and not also to produce citizens since, after all, we did create the public schools in the first place to produce citizens.

Frank LoMonte: Sure, yeah. Interestingly, the employer surveys really do tend to emphasize a lot of the soft skills more than the hard skills when you see what employers want out young people. Critical thinking skills always rate very very high on the employer surveys, much more so than subject specific knowledge, much of which you can pick up on the job if you have good critical thinking skills.

Peter Levine: Right. So, I think there is an agenda and opportunity and one of the reasons I’m actually pretty optimistic for us is that we can start showing that civic education is just good education and then we reduce the trade-off.

Frank LoMonte: Well, just by way of summary, we’ve hit on some of the highlights out of the “All Together Now” report, and I do encourage everyone to read the entire report, which you can find on the CIRCLE website, but what are some of the other more revealing or more significant findings that you think came out of that youth voting commission, and with those findings, what happens next? What do we do with this report to make sure it doesn’t just sit on a shelf?

Peter Levine: Well you know, I talked to people who haven’t thought that much about civic education before. They tend to say, “why don’t teach civics anymore? Why don’t we test civics? I had to take a civics class.” So what they want really as a response is a mandatory civics class and a test. The problem is that we’ve actually studied the effects of those two things and they’re very disappointing. Kids don’t really know more in states that require the civics test or the states that require the civics course.

So then, you can get pessimistic about civics in general and say, “well, it doesn’t work.” Well, that’s not true because good civics classes are very beneficial. The problem is that the state mandates don’t generate good civics classes. I think that’s because everything depends upon quality.

So you know, you have a civics test. It’s only helpful if it’s a good test. If it’s a very dumb test, it’s not helpful. Likewise, a civics course is good, but only if the teachers are prepared for it and the materials are good.

So, I wish that it was easier because I wish I could say, “we’ve found the recipe, you need to have a 12th grade civics class, as some states do.” But, I can’t say that. So I think what I have to say is more challenging, which is that we need lots of people working on the question of quality over time, and that includes people like the journalism profession and the law profession, because those are two specialized professions, which have a great interest in the quality of our civic education, which needs to be there, not just once, but year in and year out helping schools to do a good job focusing on quality.

Frank LoMonte: Well, we’ll just take a minute or two, if you don’t mind, we’ve got a little bit of time. I’d like to hear just a real high level summary of “We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For,” which is just out from Oxford University Press. Tell us about the book and tell us where people can get it.

Peter Levine: Frank, thanks for letting me plug my book. They can get it on Amazon and it’s from Oxford University Press, but you can get it on Amazon Kindle too. It’s a very general book, for better or for worse. It’s not narrow. The argument, I can summarize very easily, is that we can’t solve our really serious problems as a country, like violence and obesity and decay of our great cities without tapping the energy and enthusiasm and work of ordinary Americans.

So, we need more civic engagement. I talk about what civic engagement is and why it’s important. Then I say, it’s actually not in good shape. I know it’s controversial because people think civic engagement is doing fine, but I argue that it is actually in decline and has been for 30 or 40 years, not because of anything wrong with people and their motives, but because the structures that allow us to engage have been eaten away.

Then, I argue for movement to renew active citizenship in America, and I try to be realistic about it. I don’t imagine tens of thousands or people marching to renew active citizenship, but I talk about how we can build on the work that we have, which is serious and there’s a lot of it, to have a movement for civic renewal.

Frank LoMonte: Well, I’m looking forward to some airplane time when I get to the book. I want to encourage everybody to check out an awesome URL that CIRCLE has, Civicyouth.org, really good work on snagging that one, excellent website where you can find the entirety of the “All Together Now: Collaboration for Innovation for Youth Engagement” report.

Also, of course, please check out the SPLC.org website, where we’ve got lots of resources about the law, the First Amendment, the law of gathering and publishing news, we hope you’ll subscribe to our podcast, our blog and our news flashes and that you’ll use the SPLC legal hotline if you’ve got any questions about your legal rights. Best way to reach us is by email: splc@splc.org.

Peter Levine from Tufts and from CIRCLE, thanks so much for being our guest, much success to you and your mission to bring civics back into schools and thanks for being with us, everyone, we’ll talk to you next month.