To revive our democracy, revive civic education

With a new Congress in power and the Obama administration looking for issues that have a chance for bipartisan support, Secretary of Education Arne DuncanArne DuncanObama meets with Chicago youth ahead of Monday speech Education's DeVos, unions need to find way to bridge divide and work together Ex-Education head: Trump transgender rollback ‘thoughtless, cruel’ MORE has called to replace the landmark No Child Left Behind education law. The proposed new law would focus on quality universal preschool education, better support for teachers, and a reform of assessment standards. As the administration works with Congress on the largest change to education policy in the last 14 years, it should emphasize another initiative in the rewrite: reviving effective civics education and ensuring that our students are learning the core tenets of active citizenship.

In a political climate in which bipartisan agreements on any issue are few and far between, most Americans have reached consensus on the fact that our political system is not working (Congress’s disapproval rating is currently at 80 percent).  It is also a fact that our education system is producing unequal outcomes — the recent economic downturn contributed to an increase in the achievement gap between affluent and lower-income students, which has grown by more than 40 percent since the 1960s. We need to reform our political process, and we need more educational equity.

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Yet proposed solutions are almost always siloed. To improve our education system, advocates call for a wide variety of solutions, ranging from increased school choice and teacher accountability, to higher teacher salaries and better-resourced schools. To improve our political system, we hear about reducing the role of money in politics, decreasing polarization in Congress, and reforming electoral systems.   

Many of these ideas have merit and are worth pursuing. But in order to both create a more equitable education system, and promote a better democracy, we need to start by better educating our young people to be active citizens. The vast array of problems inflicting our democracy, from inequality to increasing polarization, requires the cumulative efforts of our entire democracy. Starting with young people. 

Take inequality, perhaps the most important issue in our country, which has galvanized the progressive base, while simultaneously garnering the attention of Republican Jeb Bush, whose new PAC declares that income inequality is a core economic problem. Inequality affects civic learning, but effective civic learning may be able to actually combat inequality. 

Unsurprisingly, students who attend schools in affluent communities are more likely to receive effective instruction in civic education. Almost all forms of civic engagement are strongly correlated with socioeconomic status for American youth. Among those 18 to 29 years old, the voter turnout rate is often three times as high for those who have attained a college degree than for those who have left high school without degrees. Inequality starts in our schools, and manifests itself in the political arena.

But our schools and other settings in which learning occurs can also provide the solutions. If all students had access to high quality civic learning opportunities, we might see a more engaged and representative polity, and low-income interests would be more represented in policy debates. Active civic engagement programs also help teach 21st century skills, simultaneously preparing young people for the 21st century democracy, and the 21st century economy. Importantly, studies have demonstrated that communities with higher civic engagement levels have higher economic, educational, and social outcomes than communities with less engagement. Effective civics education can combat inequality.

Polarization also has become a scourge on our political process. It takes only a cursory glance in our capitol’s direction to recognize that an inability for parties to work together has led to a complete lack of substantive action. The public has noticed: in February 2013, 76 percent of registered voters said that American politics had recently become more divisive. 

This polarized environment has affected civics education. Every classroom discussion, textbook adoption, or comment by a teacher has become a potential flashpoint. Even the word “democracy” is politically divisive in a way that was not true in the 1980s. 

The solution to a less polarized polity also starts in our schools. When teachers plan, organize and facilitate discussions of controversial issues in their classrooms, students can learn to address contentious issues responsibly and effectively. This, in turn, creates a citizenry capable of working together to solve difficult, intractable social and economic issues. 

We often look to quick fixes to our biggest problems, and this holds true when trying to improve our decaying education and political systems. Educating young people to be active citizens will not lead to solutions overnight — it will not lead to an exceedingly high voter turnout in 2016, and it will not cause politicians to suddenly possess the ability to productively talk to members of the opposite party. 

But if we’re looking to long-term solutions to revive our democracy, reviving civic learning must be a priority. Congress, Arne Duncan, and the Obama administration have a unique opportunity to simultaneously address growing educational inequality and a governmental system that’s not working. They must make reviving effective civic learning a cornerstone of a new education policy.