Civic Education

  • Guns Do Kill: They Don’t Belong Near Schools

    “When is enough enough?” – Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers

    “We call BS.” – Emma González, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School senior

    A new year, a new bloody record: Wednesday, February 14, 2018 now marks the deadliest high school shooting in the history of the United States, surpassing the infamous Columbine High School massacre of April 1999. In another expression of senseless violence, at least 17 people lost their lives when a former student opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Broward County, Florida.

    While the people of Broward County struggle to heal, how can the country as a whole heal? With the calendar year less than seven weeks old (a period that included the end of many winter breaks), the Broward County massacre already marked the 17th school shooting of the year. Only in the United States do school shootings happen so frequently. And even here, that rate exceeds the number of school shootings through the 14th day of February in each previous year since 2013, when Everytown for Gun Safety started keeping count, and far exceeds the average of 9.2 school shootings through February 14 between 2013 and 2017. The Gun Violence Archive, which has compiled statistics since 2014 and uses a more restrictive definition of school shootings that excludes incidents that took place after hours, also counts the Broward County massacre as the 17th school shooting this year (and provides a slightly higher average of 9.25 school shootings through February 14 between 2014 and 2017).

    This is a nation at peace domestically. How many gravestones, crosses and urns should there be marking the remains of schoolchildren and educators slain by guns of war?

  • The Importance Of Civil Society And Civic Education: The Bulgarian Example

    Our guest author today is Tatiana Vaksberg, one of the founders of the 1989-90 Bulgarian students movement and an award-winning investigative journalist based in Sofia, Bulgaria, concentrating on issues of human rights and transitional governance. This post was adapted from her remarks to the ASI’s recent Crisis of Democracy conference.

    My country is one of those places in Eastern Europe that said “no” to communism 28 years ago in an attempt to build a new and democratic society. Back in 1989, I was among the young students in Bulgaria that formed the first free student organization in 40 years. We struggled for a new constitution that would allow a multiparty system, freedom and respect for human rights.

    In 1991, I started working for Bulgarian television’s central news desk. I have worked in the field of journalism ever since, which obviously changed my perspective. I started reporting on the way the new constitutional provisions were implemented and on the way other people continued to struggle. But what has never left my mind was the importance of one repetitive and persistent question which is common to many Bulgarians today: have we achieved what we struggled for?

    The quick answer is “yes.” In 28 years, we achieved almost all of the main goals that we had in the beginning of the 1990s: Bulgaria is now a NATO and European Union (EU) member and all of its citizens’ rights and freedoms are constitutionally guaranteed. Even if Bulgaria is the poorest country in the EU —with an average monthly salary of only 420 dollars — the country has the fourth highest GDP growth rate in the EU. Technically, we live in a democracy with a poor but growing economy. Like Germany, we have elected for a third time the same conservative government, which could be seen as a sign of political stability. Nevertheless, something is terribly wrong with our achievement. The more we look democratized and stable, the worse are our achievements in the field of constructing a true civil society and true democracy.

    I want to speak about this discrepancy.

  • Not Our President

    That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

    Last Friday, Donald Trump took the oath to become the forty-fifth president of the United States.

    Civil rights icon and U.S. Congressman John Lewis spoke for many when he declared that the Trump presidency was not “legitimate.” He was right.

    The democratic tradition captured in the words of the Declaration of Independence is unequivocal: It is the consent of the governed that provides a government with legitimacy, with its just powers. That consent is expressed through free and fair elections in which every citizen has the right to vote.

    The Trump presidency fails this test of legitimacy on four substantive grounds.

  • The Role Of Teacher Diversity In Reducing Implicit Bias

    Last month, the Albert Shanker Institute released a report on the state of teacher diversity, which garnered  fair amount of press attention – see here, here, here, and here. (For a copy of the full report, see here.) This is the first of three posts, drawn from a research review published in the report, which help to explain why diversity in the teaching force—or lack thereof—is a major concern.

    Since the mid-1980s, researchers have argued that the lack of teacher diversity serves to undermine democratic amity by reinforcing stereotypes and perpetuating existing social inequalities (see, for example, Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy, 1986). A growing body of recent research serves to underscore this point.

    A case in point is research on implicit bias, that is to say, unconscious judgments and opinions that arise through a system of mental processes that are so quick as to be imperceptible. But the fact that they are auto­matic and outside of conscious control can make them very hard to counter and correct for. Being influenced by cultural stereotypes is one of the more common forms of implicit bias. (For previous posts exploring the issue of implicit bias, see here, here and here.)

    Stereotypes are cognitive associations between a group and a trait (or set of traits), such as women and nurtur­ing, men and leadership skills, African American males and aggression, etc. After frequent (and sometimes subtle) exposures from our social environments, these mental associations form automatically, even in the absence of conscious antipathies toward groups (Gaertner & Dovidio, 1986; Devine, 1989; Bargh, 1999; Dovidio & Gaertner, 2004; Greenwald & Krieger, 2006; Jost et al., 2009).

  • Why We Defend The Public Square

    The following are the texts of the two speeches from the opening session of our recent two-day conference, “In Defense of the Public Square,” which was held on May 1-2 at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. The introduction was delivered by Leo Casey and the keynote address was delivered by Randi Weingarten. The video of the full event will be available soon here.

    Remarks by Leo Casey

    We meet here today in “defense of the public square.”

    The public square is the place where Americans come together as a people and establish common goals in pursuit of our common good.

    The public square is the place where Americans – in all of our rich diversity – promote the general welfare, achieving as a community what we never could do as private individuals.

    The public square is the place where Americans weave together our ideal of political equality and our solidarity with community in a democratic political culture, as de Tocqueville saw so well.

  • In Defense Of The Public Square

    A robust and vibrant public square is an essential foundation of democracy. It is the place where the important public issues of the day are subject to free and open debate, and where our ideas of what is in the public interest take shape. It is the ground upon which communities and associations are organized to advocate for policies that promote that public interest. It is the site for the provision of essential public goods, from education and healthcare to safety and mass transportation. It is the terrain upon which the centralizing and homogenizing power of both the state and the market are checked and balanced. It is the economic arena with the means to control the market’s tendencies toward polarizing economic inequality and cycles of boom and bust. It is the site of economic opportunity for historically excluded groups such as African-Americans and Latinos.

    And yet in America today, the public square is under extraordinary attack. A flood of unregulated, unaccountable money in our politics and media threatens to drown public debate and ravage our civic life, overwhelming authentic conceptions of the public interest. Decades of growing economic inequality menaces the very public institutions with the capacity to promote greater economic and social equality. Unprecedented efforts to privatize essential public goods and public services are underway. Teachers, nurses and other public servants who deliver those public goods are the object of vilification from the political right, and their rights in the workplace are in danger. Legislative and judicial efforts designed to eviscerate public sector unions are ongoing.

    In response to these developments, a consortium of seven organizations—the Albert Shanker Institute; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the American Federation of Teachers; the American Prospect; Dissent; Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor; and the Service Employees International Union—has organized a to bring together prominent elected officials, public intellectuals, and union, business and civil rights leaders “in defense of the public square.”

  • To Seek Common Ground On Life's Big Questions, We Need Science Literacy

    Our guest author today is Jonathan Garlick, Director of the Division of Cancer Biology and Tissue Engineering at the School of Dental Medicine at Tufts University. This article was originally published on The Conversation.

    Science isn’t important only to scientists or those who profess an interest in it. Whether you find fascinating every new discovery reported or you stopped taking science in school as soon as you could, a base level understanding is crucial for modern citizens to ground their engagement in the national conversation about science-related issues.

    We need to look no further than the Ebola crisis to appreciate the importance of science literacy. A recently elected senator has linked sealing the US-Mexican border with keeping Ebola out of the US, even though the disease is nonexistent in Mexico. Four out of 10 Americans believe there will be a large scale Ebola epidemic here, even though there have been just four cases in the US and only one fatality. Flu, on the other hand, which killed over 100 children here last winter, barely registers in the public consciousness.

    Increasingly we must grapple with highly-charged and politicized science-based issues ranging from infectious diseases and human cloning to reproductive choices and climate change. Yet many – perhaps even the majority – of Americans aren’t sufficiently scientifically literate to make sense of these complicated issues. For instance, on one recent survey of public attitudes and understanding of science and technology, Americans barely got a passing grade, answering only 5.8 out of 9 factual knowledge questions correctly.

  • Where Al Shanker Stood: Democracy In Public Education

    There is an ongoing debate in the U.S. about the role of democracy in public education. In March 1997, in his final “Where We Stand” column in the New York Times, Al Shanker addressed this issue directly. The piece, published posthumously, was an excerpt from a larger essay entitled "40 Years in the Profession," which was included in a collection published by the Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation.

    Why do I continue when so much of what I’ve worked for seems threatened? To a large extent, because I believe that public education is the glue that has held this country together. Critics now say that the common school never really existed, that it’s time to abandon this ideal in favor of schools that are designed to appeal to groups based on ethnicity, race, religion, class, or common interests of various kinds. But schools like these would foster divisions in our society; they would be like setting a time bomb.

    A Martian who happened to be visiting Earth soon after the United States was founded would not have given this country much chance of surviving. He would have predicted that this new nation, whose inhabitants were of different races, who spoke different languages, and who followed different religions, wouldn’t remain one nation for long. They would end up fighting and killing each other. Then, what was left of each group would set up its own country, just as has happened many other times and in many other places. But that didn’t happen. Instead, we became a wealthy and powerful nation—the freest the world has ever known. Millions of people from around the world have risked their lives to come here, and they continue to do so today.

  • Invisible Labor Redux

    Recently, I learned that the Connecticut legislature is considering a bill that would mandate coverage of labor history in high school curricula. I was surprised. And interested. At a time when there are immense pressures to align curriculum --  ever more narrowly --  to standardized tests, these Connecticut politicians were advocating for material that is unlikely ever to appear on a high-stakes test.

    What makes it even more interesting is that the legislation is urging the study of labor history. Let’s face it, unions are in drastic decline in this country and the political climate is as hostile to labor as it has ever been -- so much so that the U.S. is cited by international democracy and human rights organizations as a country where basic worker rights are routinely violated, in law and in practice.

    There has been little public outcry over the years as unions have weakened, although some commentators (here, here) have recently noted that the decline of unions has tracked the decline of real wages and the rise of wealth inequality.  In this context, the economic benefits that unions bring to individual workers (through good wages and benefits) have long been recognized by the World Bank and others, see here, and here for example.   In cross-national studies, the Bank has also noted the ‘negative correlation’ between high rates of union density and collective bargaining coverage, and wage inequality and variance.

  • "Show Me What Democracy Looks Like"

    Our guest author today is John McCrann, a Math teacher and experiential educator at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City. John is a member of the America Achieves Fellowship, Youth Opportunities Program, and Teacher Leader Study Group. He tweets at @JohnTroutMcCran.

    New York City’s third through eighth graders are in the middle of state tests, and many of our city’s citizens have taken strong positions on the value (or lack thereof) of these assessments.  The protests, arguments and activism surrounding these tests remind me of a day when I was a substitute civics teacher during summer school.  “I need help," Charlotte said as she approached my desk, “what is democracy?"

    On that day, my mind flashed to a scene I witnessed outside the White House in the spring of 2003.  On one side of the fence, protestors shouted: “Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!”  On the other side worked an administration who had invaded another country in an effort to “expand democracy." Passionate, bright people on both sides of that fence believed in the idea that Charlotte was asking about, but came to very different conclusions about how to enact the concept.