Students Do Not Have Access to Quality Civics Education and It Is Harming Our Status as a Democracy

The United States was recently downgraded by economists from a “full” democracy to a “flawed” democracy. The Democracy Index measures where different nations fall on a scale of governmental operations, ranging from all-out dictatorships to complete democracies. The Index analyzes freedoms and political rights within a particular country and uses that data to determine the type of government that best classifies that nation.

The War on Public Education Destroys Democracy

Why would the United States have recently been demoted to a flawed, rather than a full, democracy? There are many answers to that question. One important causal factor is the simple fact that our citizens are becoming less-informed, less-inquisitive, and less-involved in the system of government. As a nation, we have very little understanding of the rule of law and how our democratic society should operate. This is a direct result of the crumbling institution of public education.

Public schools once embraced courses that taught young students about the American system of government, their civic duties and responsibilities, and foundational American laws. These courses helped to prepare students to become engaged, inquisitive members of a democratic society. Students not only learned about what a democracy should look like, but also came to understand their role in the system.

Decline of Civic Knowledge

In recent years, however, the number of schools to offer courses that offer these vital lessons have declined rapidly  As a result, today’s society collectively knows very little about our government. Here are some horrific takeaways from a recent survey of Americans by the University of Pennsylvania:

  • Three-quarters of Americans cannot name all three branches of the Federal government.
  • One-third of Americans cannot identify a single branch of the Federal government.
  • More than one-half of the population does not know, or cannot properly articulate, which branch of government can declare war.

The University of Pennsylvania has been conducting this survey for years. Each year, the results show that Americans know less and less about our system of government, rules of law, and the Constitution.

Since our collective knowledge about our government and law is declining, we cannot be thoughtful, informed, and meaningful participants in our democratic society. As a result, our democracy is no longer working as our Founding Fathers intended. How can our elected officials represent our desires and needs if we cannot and do not articulate what we want?

Our elected officials no longer represent us because it is easy to deceive a constituency that isn’t informed about policy and important issues.

How to Restore a Full Democracy

How can we fix our country and work toward reclaiming the status of a full democratic nation?

Restoring Informative Courses in Public Schools

The first priority should be in fixing our public school agendas and curricula. We must introduce the idea of democracy to our students at a young age and teach them about the laws that impact them each and every day of their lives. We must teach our students that, as members of a democratic society, they have the power to influence legislation and fight for laws that they believe to be in their best interest.

Encouraging Students to Study the Law

The second priority should be encouraging students to harness their distress with and distrust of our government in a positive way. More young people are becoming vocal about political issues on social media. They are unhappy with how things are going in the country and using their social media platforms as a voice for their discontent.

Unfortunately, social media can often devolve into dehumanizing and endless loops of arguments with those whose opinions differ from ours. Many times, these arguments lack the substance and foundation that are necessary to be meaningful and evoke change. Encouraging our youth to become learned in the law can be a tremendous tool in allowing these arguments to evolve.

Students and advocates can begin by petitioning to have law and ethics courses introduced in their local school districts. These courses can be instrumental in giving students a crash-course on democracy, law, and policy. If students are particularly interested in continuing this education, they should be encouraged to choose post-secondary courses that expand on these issues. This can include study in the fields of criminal justice, government, public policy, and even the law.

According to Sherwin Arzani, an attorney and legal scholar, studying these topics in depth, particularly in a law school setting, can help to develop analytical and critical thinking skills that are not limited to the practice of law.

“Studying the law gives you the tools you need to argue and debate effectively,” Arzani explains. “Arguments are not just limited to the legal practice; public debate would be much more effective for evoking change if we, as a society, knew how to do it properly.”

Fighting to Restore Our Democratic Nation Through Education

A well-educated population is essential to a full democracy. Our democracy will continue to crumble if we do not provide our youth with the tools that are necessary to become active and engaged participants in society. These tools can be provided by (a) re-introducing civics courses in our elementary schools and (b) encouraging the pursuit of knowledge through the study of law.

We must continue to embrace and support policies that foster education in America. If we do not, we will continue to slide down the Democracy Index and become a nation that is unrecognizable.

Public School Curricula

What we teach our students matters. It is imperative for all students to have access to not only a free education, but to a high-quality education. What our students learn, and how they learn it, is at the core of the public school curricula. Unfortunately, the institution of public education is under attack, and the war on public school has many fronts. Attacking the public school curricula – what and how students learn – is a powerful tool.

Changes in Public School Teachings

In recent years, there has been a dynamic shift away from teaching our students about what they need to know to be informed citizens of a democratic nation. When public schools first emerged centuries ago, the local community was responsible for drawing up a curriculum for its students. Parents, teachers, and lawmakers gathered to determine what students needed to learn to become successful members of society. In most cases, this included formal instruction for reading, writing, and arithmetic. Local economy and jobs would also influence which life skills and knowledge students would be taught. This helped to not only educate students, but also prepare them for life in the working world.

Over the course of time, public education became more centralized. As a result, the state and federal government gained increased control over decisions about what and how students should learn. At first, this helped to encourage courses of action that supported discussion of democracy and public policy. In the 1960s, public high schools generally offered three different courses to help students prepare to become citizens of a democratic society:

  • Government, in which students learned about different forms of government and the inner-workings of democracy;
  • Civics, in which students learned about the responsibilities of being a member of a democratic nation; and
  • Problems of Democracy, in which students were able to discuss policy issues, current events, and other real-world problems that were relevant to them.

Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find these courses in a public school. While you may find bits and pieces of each of these courses stuffed into a generic “American History” or “civics” class, these former cornerstones of the public school curricula are all but history. This is a relatively recent occurrence, thanks, in part, to the No Child Left Behind Act. Kids are forced to study for standardized tests, rather than prepare to become engaged members of society.

What Should Our Children Learn?

What should our children learn? Should we only focus on American victories, and limit the discussion of parts of our past that are dark and difficult to digest? Should we white-wash our past and allow our children to go through life without understanding the struggles of history? Or, should discussion about difficult topics be front and center? These are questions that have been at the center of debate for years.

As advocates for public education, we believe that it is important to allow our students to learn both the good and the bad. Critical thinking and independent analysis are crucial life skills. We must be able to present students will information, allow them to consider context, and provide them with the ability to derive an opinion and conclusion on their own. We cannot simply hand them an answer and force them to accept it as true. If we truly want our children to grow into active participants of an ever-changing society, we must equip them with the tools that can be of best use to them in that role. Preparation begins in the classroom with discussion of things that are difficult.

Teachers Hesitant to Discuss Current Events

The only way for students to hone their critical thinking and analysis skills is by putting them to the test. There is no better opportunity for this than the discussion of current events. In today’s society, there is certainly no shortage of topics to discuss. Unfortunately, many teachers are hesitant to open the floor for discussion of issues that impact students on a day-to-day basis.

Teachers feel pressure to stick to the curricula and not stray into conversations about current issues. In some cases, teachers are even hesitant to teach controversial books or ideas that have been part of our society for decades. Why? Teachers are always under scrutiny and often fear repercussions of allowing their students to have an open dialogue. Discussions can veer into areas with which parents are uncomfortable.  However, school may be the only place that some students can have open discourse with a diverse community about things that really matter.

Public School Curricula Must Include Difficult Topics

Public schools are under attack. One line of attack includes dismantling the components of public school curricula that allow our students to build a foundation of critical and independent thinking. We must fight to revamp our public school curriculum and shift it away from test-based teachings. We must also not shy away from discussing the blemishes on our history, controversial current events, or other topics that can help our students thrive.

How to Reintroduce Critial Thinking Into Our Schools

A child shouldn’t have to wait until they graduate from high school and seek post-secondary training to get an education that teaches critical thinking skills.

Unfortunately, that’s the current state of education in America. The lack of critical thinking education does a great disservice to our youth.

Students seeking post-secondary degrees should have a well-rounded academic foundation. Post-secondary degrees are meant to build on the skills students have developed throughout their early education. When students lack the ability to think critically, they cannot reap the full benefits of a graduate-level degree. Rather than furthering their education, students either struggle or spend valuable time focused on crafting a skill they should have already learned.

The current education system in the United States needs to change. Critical thinking is an essential life skill. Students will be more successful in life if they develop the ability to analyze and think critically from a young age. While some of this can be done at home, school is really the place where these skills can grow and thrive.

What is Critical Thinking?

What exactly is critical thinking? Critical thinking is defined as “disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence.”

In other words, critical thinking is the ability to assess information and form a judgment for yourself. The ability to think critically is vital to society. Why? The world would be in chaos if everyone simply accepted information that was presented to them. Having the ability to analyze the information, consider it in the proper context, and extrapolate judgments is vital to our social, economic, and political structures.

What Isn’t Critical Teaching Taught in School Anymore?

There are a few possible reasons why critical thinking has taken a back seat in the American education system.

1. There’s an Incentive to Keep the Status Quo

When young people have the ability to think critically, they can challenge ideas and structures that they believe are wrong or inefficient. Giving young people this power could certainly upset the current status quo. Why make it easy for students to develop the skills that would allow them to pose a threat to those currently enjoying power and prosperity?

2. Priorities Are Mixed

There are many different theories about what students should learn in school. Some believe that it’s important to focus on the core subjects (i.e., math, science, history, English) and little else. Others want to add in a wide range of subjects, leaving little time for skills like critical thinking. Rather than challenging students to think for themselves, school is thought of as a place to provide students with knowledge.

3. Teaching to the Test

Education today has really become all about teaching to the test. Aptitude test results often affect school funding and reputation. These tests also affect a student’s chances of enrolling in a college or university. Failing the test can mean limiting a student’s future educational opportunities after graduation.

While there are some critical thinking aspects present in standardized tests, they are really few and far between. Those critical thinking questions are really reserved for graduate-level aptitude tests like the LSAT or MCAT. In order to maximize test results, education today is mostly geared toward memorization and regurgitation.

How Can We Re-Introduce Critical Thinking Skills into Our Schools?

Critical thinking skills are crucial in the real world. Many post-graduate schools really embrace critical thinking in the classroom. Many graduate-level students find that the education they receive after high school is superior? Why? Attorney Boris Lavent, a civil and personal injury litigator in Florida, thinks the focus on critical thinking is the answer.

“Students learn best when they are challenged,” Lavent, a graduate of the University of Chicago School of Law, explains. “Law school is unlike any other education system in America. Students are challenged from the minute they walk through the door and pushed to their limits.”

While this can make the law school experience a difficult one, Lavent says that the crash course in critical thinking is vital to success in life. “The ability to think on your feet and analyze a difficult situation is not only an important skill for an attorney, but an important skill for any adult in the real world.”

Treat Public Education More Like Law School

How can we get critical thinking back into public education? How can we make sure that our children are challenged from a young age and develop the skills that are necessary for a successful life? One option is to turn the education system on its head and make it more like law school.

Law schools typically embrace the “Socratic Method.” Rather than lecturing to students, teachers run interactive classrooms. Students can be called on at random to answer questions, explain situations, and offer insight into issues. This approach can be intimidating, but it forces the student to think critically and for themselves.

The entire education system doesn’t necessarily have to embrace the Socratic Method. However, it may be wise for certain courses to apply different teaching methods similar to those embraced in law school. Pushing young students to think on their feet will help them to think in new ways and solve problems for in interesting ways.

Shifting Diversity in Schools

Multiple studies have proven that public education is essential to a thriving democracy. One reason for this is because public education helps to promote diversity and understanding. Students who are exposed to classmates and teachers from a variety of backgrounds, cultures, and orientations are more likely to be successful as adults.

The world is a complex place, full of different people. Public education should be used as a tool to help children develop the skills they will need to thrive as citizens in an evolving society. Unfortunately, public education has suffered many setbacks in recent years, including decreased access to civics education. Another such setback involves public educations’ inability to keep up with shifting demographics.

Increase in Minority Students in America

Minority students are accounting for a larger percentage of the population. In 2003, minorities accounted for 41 percent of the student population in the country. Ten years later, half of all students in the country identified as a minority. This trend is expected to continue in coming years. By 2024, white students are expected to account for only 46 percent of the enrolled students in the country.

Lack of Diversity Among Teachers

While students are becoming more diverse, teachers are not. Today, 82 percent of the educators in America’s public schools are white. That’s less than one in five teachers. This means that the diverse student body is not being given the opportunity to learn from teachers who reflect our truly-diverse country. (We won’t even get into the diversity, or lack-thereof, of public school administration.)

Diversity Gap

The discrepancy between diverse students and diverse teachers is known as the diversity gap. Interestingly, the diversity gap varies significantly (a) with different backgrounds and (b) in different geographic locations.

The diversity gap tends to be most pronounced in urban areas and least pronounced in rural areas.

Urban Diversity Gap

  • Hispanic Teacher/Student Diversity Gap: 21.8%
  • Black Teacher/Student Diversity Gap: 9.7%

Suburban Diversity Gap

  • Hispanic Teacher/Student Diversity Gap: 14.5%
  • Black Teacher/Student Diversity Gap: 7%

Rural Diversity Gap

  • Hispanic Teacher/Student Diversity Gap: 5.6%
  • Black Teacher/Student Diversity Gap: 5.6%

Why is the diversity gap so much greater in urban parts of the country? Cities tend to be more heavily concentrated with minorities than towns and rural areas. As a result, the lack of diverse teachers is more pronounced.

The wealth of a public school district, regardless of its geographic location, also influences the diversity of the teaching staff. Studies show that high-poverty areas are more likely to employ minority teachers. Low-poverty and high-wealth areas, on the other hand, tend to employ mostly white teachers.

If diversity among peers and teachers is important for a well-developed and productive society, children raised in urban and/or high-poverty areas are statistically less likely to get the education they need.

Fighting For Diversity in Teaching

Students need to be exposed to students and teachers of varying backgrounds. It is only through this exposure that children can truly gain the skills they will need to be members of an informed and productive democratic society. If students are not given the opportunity to see minorities in positions of power, they are not receiving a full and beneficial education. The only way to change this is to shift the demographics of teachers in America.

How can we shift the demographics to reduce the diversity gap?

Proposal #1: Provide minorities with greater access to affordable post-graduate education.

One roadblock for minority educators is the price of a degree. Studies show that many black, Hispanic, and Asian high school graduates express an interest in entering the field of teaching. However, the educator pipeline loses a majority of the minority applicants along the way due to crippling financial costs. Making education degrees, which are now essentially required for all public teaching jobs, more accessible and affordable will help to close the diversity gap.

Proposal #2: Shift resources to education to support higher teaching wages.

Public teachers are one of the most important assets to a democratic society, but among those who receive the least in compensation. Minority applicants may be more inclined to (a) explore the field of teaching and (b) make their way through the educator pipeline if compensation were more appropriate.

Proposal #3: Limit charter schools that limit diversity.

While the overall enrolled student population is becoming increasingly diverse, many schools are actually becoming less diverse. Why? Charter schools are competing with public schools and drawing certain segments of the population.

Since these schools can determine which students enroll, and which don’t, they can essentially control the diversity of their own student body. A high-brow private school that enrolls mostly white students can adversely affect the diversity of a nearby public school. As a result, students are not able to learn and grow with others who come from different backgrounds.

The bottom line is that diversity is crucial to providing our students with a well-rounded education. Depriving students of the ability to learn with and from diverse individuals is a crippling disservice to them and the future of our country.

Charter Schools Threaten Public Education in America

Charter schools have become incredibly popular in the United States since the first school opened its doors in Minnesota back in 1992. The “school choice” movement and advocacy for allocating government funds to support these quasi-public institutions has gained considerable traction under the current administration.

Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, has essentially waged a war on public education by throwing all of her support to the charter school industry. If we are not vigilant, public education could soon disappear and be replaced by charter schools.

What are Charter Schools?

Charter schools are advertised as being “public, tuition-free schools that are open to all students” that are established by “teachers, parents, or community groups.” In truth, however, most charter schools are publicly-funded private institutions that are established and run by large corporations.

Unlike public institutions, which exist to provide all students access to a free, high-quality education, charter schools exist to line the pockets of the wealthy and undermine efforts to create an informed and educated society.

Purpose of Education

Public education is an essential tool of a democratic society. Democracy requires the informed input of involved citizens. Our public schools are the perfect outlet for providing each young generation with not only knowledge but the skills and analytical tools that are crucial for success in life. Democracy is threatened when students do not receive the foundation that is necessary to be a contributing member of society.

Democracy is threatened by the rise of charter schools. Why? Charter schools are a great way to (1) sidestep the purpose of public education and (2) deprive students of a learning environment that fosters free expression and critical thinking.

Sidestepping the Purpose of Education

Public education has long been a way for parents, local lawmakers, and the community at-large to have a say in how their students are taught. While curricula are, to a large degree, set at the state and/or federal level, the local community still has the ability to influence what students learn and how they are taught. Using the community to teach students helps to create individuals who understand the basic tenets of democracy and the importance of civic participation.

Charter schools are often run by large corporations that have no other ties to the community. Instead of valuing the quality of the education that its students receive, concern lies with the bottom line. Charter schools are simply a mechanism of a capitalist society to generate revenue for the rich. Since a true democracy and an educated society threatens this system, charter schools are actually used to combat both of these things.

This is not to say that charter school students do not receive an education. They certainly have the tools to learn how to read, write, and perform simple math. However, these students are often not being challenged to think beyond the test and hone important critical thinking skills. Students today learn to accept what they are taught without question, rather than analyzing an issue and coming to a conclusion on their own.

Depriving Students of a Diverse Learning Environment

Public schools are particularly effective because they allow students to learn in a diverse academic setting. Student enrollment is increasingly diverse. In fact, minority students will soon account for more than half of all public school students. Exposure to diverse backgrounds, races, ideas, and orientations – of peers and teachers, alike – has proven to be a benefit to all students. Learning to embrace the simple idea of “other” helps individuals to integrate into an increasingly diverse world.

While charter schools like to say that they’re open to everyone, enrollment often tells a different story. Schools often lack diversity thanks, in part, to admission procedures. The schools craft procedures that help them secure the student body they want, not the student body that accurately represents the community in which it is located. As a result, students are deprived of the ability to learn in a diverse setting. When these students graduate and enter the workforce, they lack the interpersonal skills and understanding that are necessary to thrive. Instead of embracing and trying to understand those who are different, we are increasingly embracing fear and rejection of “other.”

Fostering this sense and fear of “other” is doing incredible damage to society. If you take a look at society today, there are so many ways in which we are divided. We are all human, yet we find ways to differentiate ourselves. These differences are not embraced or celebrated, but rather used to oppress and harm. While charter schools are not the sole offender, they are playing a very large role in the destruction of our democratic society.

The Rise in Charter Schools is Killing Public Education

Charter schools and “school choice” are not only becoming more popular with the general public, but with the government, as well. Unfortunately, the rise in charter schools is killing public education. Parents, fearful of government overreach and inadequate education in public schools, are sending their children across the street to quasi-public institutions As a result, funding that is essential to the operation of our public schools is being gutted and sent directly to charter schools. Many public schools have had to close in recent years because they simply do not have the funds to continue operations.

We need to protect public education. It is vital to our democratic society. Charter schools pose a serious threat to the institution of public education, which has been valued by our society since the day it was born. We must continue to support policy initiatives and funding operations that support public education and quality civics education. Without advocacy efforts, public education will soon be a thing that student may learn about in history books.

Fostering Democracy By Encouraging the Discussion of Controversial Issues in School

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects the right to engage in free speech. Why? Our Founding Fathers apparently thought it was important to protect the right to speak freely without fear of consequence. One could infer, then, that our Founding Fathers firmly believed that even their greatest critics deserved the right and freedom to dissent.

Throughout history, critical changes have been secured because individuals spoke out against injustices that were carried out by our government. Slavery was once legal. Racial segregation was once legal. Women once lacked the right to be identified as a person for the purposes of the law. Dissenting voices, free to speak out against perceived injustices, shed light on important issues, gathered support, and evoked changes to the law. Dissent and the right to speak freely are critical to the function of a democratic nation.

Unfortunately, free speech is being hampered in society. There is perhaps no better evidence of this than our public schools. Teachers are demonstrably afraid of discussing controversial issues with students, for fear of retribution from local parents and the board of education. Instead, teachers shy away from current events and politically-sensitive topics and gear discussions toward sanitized and white-washed topics. And the fact that most students lack access to quality Civics education only aggravates the problem.

Discussing Current Events in School

As a result, students are not being given the opportunity to learn about open discourse, intelligent debate, and diversity of opinion. Public school needs to be a place where students have the freedom to openly discuss the issues that are present in society. Open discussions, including those about controversial or difficult topics, are a First Amendment right. Students must be introduced to the idea of free speech and dissent in the classroom.

Policies and Events Affect Us Differently

Students must be able to see how different policies and events affect their peers differently. The best way to highlight these differences is by discussing the hard issues and hearing different takes on those issues, first-hand. White students should know how their black classmates feel about the epidemic of police brutality and gunning down of black Americans. Students who identify as heterosexual should know how their LGBT classmates are affected by discriminatory government policies. Male students should know how the oppressive policies and rules adversely affect their female classmates.

If we are not adversely impacted by a law or policy we may not know its true consequences. While a law or regulation may be neutral toward you, it may be a devastating blow to others. Discussing hot topics and current events can help to shed light and varying perspectives on important issues. These discussions will not only help to foster critical thinking skills, but also educate students about our truly diverse and complex society.

Discussing Opposing Viewpoints

Just because students are engaged in discussions about current events does not mean that their opinions will coexist peacefully. If we hold a strong belief about something, we are more inclined to go to great lengths to protect it. The right to hold a dissenting opinion and speak freely about it does not mean that we should harm or put others down in the process of expressing it. Fostering important conversations in the classroom can teach students how to approach differences of opinion with an open mind and respect.

Actively listening to dissenting opinions is just as important as free speech. Students can learn to listen, digest information, consider alternative opinions, and decide where they stand on an issue. If, after meaningful discussion, a student is not persuaded by other viewpoints, they are free to continue voicing their own opinion. More often than not, however, listening to others can help us to form a better and more-reasoned opinion on a matter.

Classroom Discussions as a Foundation for Democratic Discourse

As a democracy, we rely on the input of an informed and well-intentioned society. Public school classrooms are the perfect place to not only teach our students, but to expose them to controversial issues. This exposure can help to create a well-rounded individual who is equipped with the tools that are necessary to be productive members of society. Dissent is key to democracy. However, dissent can only be effective if it grounded in morals and an understanding of our diverse community.

Our schools should embrace discussions of current events and allow students to find their voice. After all, they have the right to express that voice freely without fear of retribution. If we do not exercise this right, we may be doomed to lose it.