By Pete Davis
Last year marked the 30th anniversary of A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform, the bombshell Reagan administration report that helped define today’s conventional wisdom about American schools. Thanks to the report – which implied that America’s “preeminence in commerce, industry, science and technology” was “being overtaken by competitors” due to a “rising tide of mediocrity” abetted by public schools – one cannot talk about schools today without hearing that classes are not “rigorous” enough, that American children are “falling behind” Chinese, Indian and Korean children in “competitive skills,” and that the answer is evermore “tougher standards.”
Three decades later, educators are standing up to call “hogwash!” on the report’s themes. When you adjust for poverty, American scores are not ‘falling behind’: non-impoverished school districts lead the world on recent PISA tests. Even more, there is no connection between a nation’s economic productivity and its test scores: Americans have had low-ranking scores for decades and yet still lead the world in economic productivity. Factories have moved to other countries not because they have better-educated citizens, but because they have lower labor standards than Americans find just. In fact, the largest recent economic threat to America – the financial crisis – was caused by the reckless corporate policies of the well-educated. Indeed, we are not A Nation at Risk of falling behind economically and, if we are, don’t blame our public schools.
America’s outlook isn’t exactly rosy, though: We are failing to stem climate change, reign in the corporate crime wave in the financial industry, roll back mass incarceration, and stop the corruption of Congress by monied interests. But these are not failures in economic competitiveness. Rather, they are civic failures: failures by us citizens to address shared problems.
When Ben Franklin was asked what governmental system America was going to end up with, he responded: “a Republic, if you can keep it.” To keep our Republic – the system that places the power to govern in the hands of the People, ourselves – we need civic education: schooling in the democratic values, civic skills, and public-minded determination needed to address today’s civic failures. Perhaps it’s time for a report entitled A Republic at Risk: The Imperative of Civic Education Revitalization.
Falls Church schools should lead the way in revitalizing American civic education. Only providing vague encouragement of ‘service hours’ and a single course on formal Government is a disservice to our high schoolers: Packing kits for the homeless is not the same as pairing such service with responsive political action against the structures that create homelessness; reading about how a bill becomes a law is not the same as developing the hands-on experience that is needed for legislative change.
Fortunately, there are signs of hope for a civic education revival in town: (1) Star teacher Rory Dippold has turned his 7th grade classroom into a home for dynamic, project-based civic engagement, leaving Huskies excited to actively participate in their communities. His Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher nominations illustrate how our community values vigorous civic education. (2) When I proposed a GMHS Public Project Program (www.tinyurl.com/GMHSPPP), dozens of neighbors reached out, excited to discuss how we can get more project-based civics in the schools. To quote one alumni: “As someone who worked on a public project during high school, it too often felt like the work we achieved was accomplished in spite of our obligations as students instead of in conjunction with them. If we had been encouraged by a program which not only formalized civic creativity as an expectation, but also integrated a supportive framework of knowledge, time, and resources into the high school education system, there’s no telling how far we could have gone.” (3) At the FCCPS Community Visioning, the audience issued a clarion call for more adult mentorship, tighter school-community bonds, and project-based learning. When asked explicitly whether FCCPS’ current level of civic education was adequate, a near-unanimous crowd expressed that FCCPS civic education needed work.
Stakeholders may not agree on the method, but they agree on the imperative: Falls Church needs a stronger civic education program to revive our at-risk Republic. But the question remains: will Superintendent Jones and the school board listen? If the FCCPS Community Visioning process was more than just lip service, then FCCPS will appoint a civic education czar to facilitate an open forum to craft a revitalized civics program for Little City schools. If we were able to find hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer funds to pay the Apple Corporation for controversial computers (money that could have paid for the salary of a full-time civic engagement coordinator), we assuredly can find the resources for the level of civic education for which the community is passionately calling. To join the push, email FCCPSCivicEducation@gmail.com!
Pete Davis is the foudner of The Falls Church CommonPlace.