by Jan Goehring
Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools is a new report that documents the decline in civic education in schools, describes six effective practices for civic learning and offers recommendations for education policymakers. The report strongly argues that investing in civic learning strengthens American democracy.
Guardian describes how American schools either neglect civic education or teach it in a superficial way. Other topics take precedence. However, research shows that civic learning improves civic knowledge, skills and dispositions. "Students who received high-quality civic learning are more likely than their counterparts to understand public issues, view political engagement as a means of addressing communal challenges, and participate in civic activities. Civic learning has similarly been shown to promote civic equality."
The report offers six proven practices for schools to enhance civic learning. The effectiveness of these practices is supported by research. They include:
- Classroom instruction in government, history, economics, law, and democracy,
- Discussion of current events and controversial topics,
- Service learning opportunities that link the service to classroom instruction,
- Extracurricular activities that allow students to be involved in their communities,
- Student participation in school governance, and
- Simulations of democratic processes and procedures.
A number of recommendations for education policymakers at all levels are also listed in the report. Suggestions for state policymakers include developing state standards and assessments for civic education, holding schools and districts accountable for civic learning achievement, using alternative forms of assessment such as group projects, and supporting professional development for civics and government teachers.
NCSL's Trust for Representative Democracy, a program to educate the public about American democracy, considers state lawmakers to be uniquely qualified to help young people understand and appreciate our government. Legislators can bring civics to life for students by visiting classrooms through the America's Legislators Back to School program. By sharing their experiences in the legislature and talking about the debate, negotiation and compromise involved in the lawmaking process, legislators provide an effective civic learning opportunity. The Trust also believes that Legislative Youth Advisory Councils are a good way to involve young people in the legislative process and educate the public about representative democracy. Twelve states have these youth councils.
The Guardian report was produced by the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, the Leonore Annenberg Institute of Civics of the Annenberg Center for Public Policy at the University of Pennsylvania; the National Conference on Citizenship; the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement at Tufts University and the Public Education Division of the American Bar Association. It updates and expands upon the findings in the 2003 Civic Mission of Schools Report.