Tag Archives: education reform

If I Had a Magic Wand….

Yesterday, I wrote that America’s governing systems no longer work properly. I believe the original, basic premises of our approach to self-government remain sound, but our “delivery systems,” the mechanics of representative democracy, have become corrupted.

With effort, those can be changed. One of the great benefits of America’s constitutional system is its flexibility. Despite persistent cries of alarm from so-called “textual originalists,” our legal system has continued to work because it has been remarkably adaptable to “new facts on the ground.”

It is undeniable, however, that our 200+ year old ship of state has taken on some barnacles.

Compromises intended to keep slave states happy (the Electoral College, for example) are poorly adapted to modern notions of democratic fairness; early allocations of  federalist jurisdiction are increasingly ill-suited to a mobile, connected population. Etc.

Assuming (as I do) that Trump’s election presages a period of turmoil and civic unrest during which many laws and institutions will be challenged and found to be unworkable, or understood to be hopelessly outmoded, what changes should we try to effect once the fever breaks?

Here are a few I think have merit:

We should establish a national, nonpartisan commission to administer elections under uniform standards. Many countries have such agencies. It would maintain voter rolls (we have no idea what turnout actually is, because there is a lag time during which states don’t know when a voter moves, or dies, and there are great disparities between states in record-keeping, purges, etc.), establish uniform times for polls to be open, prevent voter suppression efforts, and generally insure a fair and equal election process.

We should get rid of the Electoral College,  gerrymandering and Citizens United.

At the local level, we should sharply limit the positions that are elected. There is no reason to elect coroners, recorders, auditors, township trustees and the like. Some of these positions may no longer be needed; those that are should be appointed by Mayors or County executives. Similarly, Governors should appoint Attorneys General and Superintendents of Public Instruction. Making a chief executive responsible for these administrative positions would improve accountability and decrease political infighting.

There are a number of steps we might take to increase vote turnout and make election results more closely reflect the popular will. We can make election day a holiday, and/or vastly increase voting by mail.  (America is highly unlikely to make voting mandatory, as it is in Australia, but we might consider a “none of the above” option.)

In addition to such mechanical “fixes,” we need a population that is at least minimally civically-literate. The emphasis upon STEM education is all well and good, but it should not be allowed to crowd out the humanities and especially civics education. “We the People” or an equivalent high-quality civics curriculum should be required for high school graduation.

And I want to put in a plug for a “New GI Bill”: Upon graduation from high school, students would enroll in a one-year program of civic service and civic education. Upon satisfactory completion of that year, the government would pay for two years of college or other post-secondary training. The program would be open to everyone, but marketed heavily to the poor and disadvantaged.

We have massive amounts of research confirming that most Americans—rich or poor—know embarrassingly little about the economic and governmental structures within which they live. This civics deficit is far more pronounced in poor communities, where civics instruction (as with other educational resources) is scarce. Because civic knowledge is a predictor of civic participation, one result is that poor folks don’t vote in percentages equal to those of middle-class and wealthy Americans.

When people don’t vote, their interests aren’t represented.

Giving students from disadvantaged backgrounds an opportunity for post-secondary education—and conditioning that opportunity on a year of civic learning and civic service—would do two extremely important things: it would give those students the civic skills they need in order to have a meaningful voice in the democratic process; and it would reduce the nation’s currently unconscionable level of student loan debt.

Those are my beginning agenda items. I’m confident that there are numerous other ideas for reconstituting and revitalizing America’s politics and our commitment to the goal of e pluribus unum.

We’re in the middle of a very painful lesson in what isn’t working; let’s start considering what would.


What We Don’t Know DOES Hurt Us…

The other day, I was grading a research paper produced by  a graduate student who shares my concerns over civic literacy. The paper included a comprehensive review of available research on the topic, much of which confirmed what we had already known about the American public’s appalling deficit in basic knowledge of our government and history.

But one finding floored me.

“In 2008, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s American Civic Literacy Program released the results of a study that tested the civic literacy of the general public, college graduates and elected officials. More than 2500 randomly selected people took ISI’s basic 33-question civic literacy exam, and more than 1700 failed, with an average score of 49 percent, and 30 percent of elected officials unable to identify the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as inalienable rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence…only 32 percent of elected officials could accurately define the free enterprise system; only 46 percent knew that Congress has the power to declare war; and only 49 percent could identify all three branches of government. Perhaps most disheartening is that civic literacy ws one of only two variables that had a negative effect on whether someone ran for public office. In other words, the more you know about American government, history and economics, the less likely you are to pursue and win elective office.” 

That explains a lot. It also raises an important question: What is the minimum content of an adequate “civics” education? What do all of us need to know in order to participate in self-governance?

In 1988, E.D. Hirsch stirred up a storm of controversy by arguing that, absent a minimal cultural literacy, students didn’t understand what they read. His basic point was that a common understanding of cultural/historical references is necessary for people to communicate. Most critics accepted that premise; where Hirsch got into trouble was by listing what he considered the necessary knowledge.

Recognizing that I’m stepping into those same choppy waters, let me just suggest some essential elements of civic literacy–beginning with an acknowledgement that neither the general public nor elected officials need to be scholars or (worse still) “intellectuals.” We are talking about very basic information necessary to conduct a rational discussion about our shared public institutions.

1) Every student who graduates from high school should know basic American history. I don’t care if they know the year the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, but they should know who the Pilgrims and Puritans were, why we fought the American Revolution, what the Enlightenment was and how it changed our definition of liberty and informed our approach to self-government and individual rights.

2) Every voter should know the basics of American government: what is meant by checks and balances and separation of powers, and the identities and duties of each of the three branches of government. Citizens should be able to recognize and define the rights protected by the Bill of Rights. (When only 51% of Americans agree that newspapers should be allowed to publish without prior government approval, we are clearly failing to provide that education.)

3) Voters don’t need to know the definition of a neutron, or how to spot a fossil, but they should know what science and the scientific method are. And they should know the difference between the scientific term “theory” and our casual use of that term.

4) Our endless debates over taxation and economic policy would benefit enormously if every student who graduated from high school could define  capitalism, socialism, fascism and mixed economy; if they knew the difference between the national debt and the deficit; and the difference between marginal and effective tax rates. (I’m always astonished by the number of people who think that being in the 50% bracket means you pay 50% of your income in taxes.)

Education reform is a hot topic right now. Basic civic knowledge needs to be at the top of that reform agenda.