Seventeen years ago, the CA Superintendent of Public Schools, Delaine Easton warned that “we are fighting for the soul of our nation.” The integrity of our republic, the rule of law and our democratic institutions will break down if we don’t re-establish the core American values and ideals that were given to us by the Founding Fathers. The current generation seems paralyzed in adversarial gridlock, without a common commitment to work together to preserve and protect our Constitution and to solve our complex foreign and domestic problems.
Recent events show we have not responded to that warning. Civic education has declined over the past 2 decades, as the focus of schools shifted to raising Language and Math scores on standardized tests. When they graduate from high school, few students have an understanding of American civic values and ideals or a deep commitment to participate in civic responsibilities, like informed voting, jury duty and volunteering to help solve community problems.
Few students know the meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance. They couldn’t describe our social contract, in which citizens get Constitutional rights and government services in exchange for civic responsibilities. The Pledge is our promise to preserve and protect that social contract. Most students haven’t learned and practiced the meaning of the original motto, “E Pluribus Unum,” to work together united in common purpose. They haven’t agreed to meet the challenge of the Founders for each generation to contribute to the building of a republic aligned with our ideals.
In classes where teachers emphasize the founding principles and values, with guided practice in democratic decision-making and community problem solving, students develop an awareness of their civic responsibility in a context of serving something greater than themselves. These students are more likely to engage in pro-social behaviors and healthy personal development, because they feel connected to the larger purpose of being a responsible citizen. They are more likely to find meaningful work and become trusted employees. They are more likely to recognize and support constructive ethical leaders in our democratic institutions.
We know how to train teachers to use proven instructional strategies to guide students to learn and practice essential civic skills and values. One key instructional practice is service learning. Senator John Glenn called it “applied academics.” Teachers provide standards-based instruction and students apply this in a project that solves a problem or serves their community. Examples include recycling, water conservation, anti-bullying campaigns, drug prevention programs, cultural understanding and social justice projects and veteran service. Students learn to research a complex issue and work together as a team to plan and implement an effective service project.
In 1999, Superintendent Easton released a report recommending that every student be engaged in a meaningful service learning project in each of the elementary, middle and high school levels. The Department of Education created an effective teacher training program, Youth Service California. When the focus of schools shifted to raising Language and Math scores, this program was closed. Now the CA Department of Education is again calling for a revitalization of civic education in K-12 schools. The key is to go beyond academic learning and engage students in civic dialogue and service learning projects.
“Young people must have both the knowledge and the opportunity to apply their knowledge through practice. They must learn that in a strong and lasting democracy, all members participate and share the belief that life is as much about giving as about getting, as much about responsibilities as about rights.” Report of the Superintendent’s Service-Learning Task Force, 1999
In 2014, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson established the California Task Force on K-12 Civic Learning. The Fresno County Civic Learning Partnership began in spring, 2015, under the authority of the Fresno Business Council. The goal is to encourage K-12 schools to implement best practices in civic education and support schools to prepare all students to be career-ready, responsible, engaged citizens. A key component is connecting student service learning projects with community leaders and mentors, which often leads to creative solutions to problems.
The first school to take this challenge was the Center for Advanced Research and Technology (CART). For the past two years, the Law Lab at CART partnered with the Fresno County Bar Association and the Fresno County Civic Learning Partnership to guide student groups to research critical issues and propose policy changes to help solve them. 50 local attorneys volunteered to help students create policy solutions for local issues.
In the new Middle School Democracy Program, 500 students are engaged in researching a community problem and implementing a Civic Service project to help solve it. Students at Baird Middle School, Kepler Neighborhood School and Sutter Middle School are eagerly participating in their projects to improve their community. John Wash Elementary School has implemented a civic service project with 3rd grade classes.
You can see and support students from these five schools present their civic service projects at the free Democracy School Showcase at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium, 2425 Fresno St., Fresno, 6:30-8pm on Monday, May 15.
John Minkler, Ph.D., is a retired history/civics teacher and administrator at the Fresno County Office of Education. John is author of Active Citizenship, Empowering America’s Youth and now a Civic Education Consultant with the Fresno County Civic Learning Partnership.