Education in a Rapidly Changing Democracy

Strengthening civic education for citizens of all ages by Matt Leighninger and Peter Levine

Matt Basinger was getting frustrated. At first, he had been excited to be asked, along with three of his peers in the leadership class at Kuna High School in Kuna, Idaho, to serve on the steering committee for the Kuna Alliance for a Cohesive Community Team.

The goal of Kuna ACT was to involve citizens of all ages in discussion and action to set a course for the future of the town. But the adults on the steering committee had become bogged down over questions of fundraising and ownership, and the students — who were due to graduate in a few months — were anxious to get going.

Matt and the other students took the high school segment of the project, which they called Teen Talk, into their own hands. They held a kickoff meeting during a school assembly and recruited more than 100 students for small-group dialogues on issues facing Kuna (which had only a few thousand residents at the time).

Feeling inspired, and perhaps a little embarrassed, by the rapid progress of their younger colleagues, the other members of Kuna ACT pushed forward with the adult side of the project. They mapped out a four-session process where participants would discuss issues relating to education, public safety, livability and citizen-government collaboration. Because of the success of Teen Talk, most adult groups, which began meeting that fall, included students, as well.

Teen Talk was the catalyst for a process that was repeated several times a year in Kuna for the following eight years. Kuna ACT became a neutral arena for hundreds of people, young and old, to participate in the decision-making process on all kinds of issues, from town planning to disaster preparedness to regional development. Through the process, students and adults helped to design a new high school and pass the bond issue necessary to build it.

Teen Talk also displayed four significant attributes. The project was

participatory (focused on dialogue and deliberation, not just rote learning);

empowering (allowed students to address issues in school or other aspects of their lives);

holistic (combined discussion with opportunities to volunteer and make other community connections); and

intergenerational (gave younger and older people the chance to learn from each other).

New Citizens
Teachers, administrators and other leaders are finding ways to embed these qualities in a wide range of civic education efforts, from high school courses to communitywide projects like the one in Kuna. These attributes are a logical response to the challenges and opportunities emerging in communities today. They also represent a successful new formula for preparing young people to be citizens in a 21st-century democracy.

To understand the changes in civic education, it is important to understand the larger context for local democracy: a changing relationship between citizens and government, fueled by changes in the citizens themselves.

Across all the age groups, ordinary people seem to be more vocal, diverse, knowledgeable and skeptical than ever before. Both younger and older people lead busier lives, on average, but they bring a higher level of skill and capacity to the issues and causes on which they spend time.

They often seem less aware of what is happening in their community or the world at large, but they are better able to find (often through the Internet) the information, allies and resources they need to affect an issue or decision they care about. They have a greater sense of their own rights and entitlements and are less trusting of governments, schools and other institutions.

This transformation of the concerns and capacities of citizens, both young and old, has meant new challenges and new opportunities for governance, education and public life as a whole.

Schools are particularly affected by these changes, both because they are preparing new citizens (students) and because they are reacting to the concerns and expectations of older citizens (parents and other adults). Smart administrators know that parents are critical to the academic success of their students, their support is essential for maintaining or raising school funding, and their buy-in is the key to making difficult decisions around issues like standards or redistricting. The question of how schools approach civic education, therefore, is not just a matter of course content: It is wrapped up in how teachers and administrators view their role in the larger community.

Parallel Shifts
Faced with these changes in citizenship, all kinds of local leaders — school administrators, public officials, other public managers — have had to change the way they operate. From these experiments and innovations, four promising developments have emerged in both civic education and citizen involvement.

First, both educators and officials are using more participatory formats that foster dialogue, deliberation and collaborative action. Organizations such as the Kettering Foundation, Public Agenda, Everyday Democracy, Street Law, the American Bar Association’s Division for Public Education and Choices for the 21st Century Education Program provide curricula and guides that can be used in classrooms to promote deliberation of large-scale issues.

Another example is service learning, which is now offered in about half of American high schools. Standards for service learning stress that students should have a voice in choosing their community projects and should reflect on what they have done. These discussions add learning to the service.

In the larger community, leaders are more likely to recruit large numbers of people for facilitated small-group dialogue and action planning. Many of these efforts, whether they are youth-focused or adult-focused, use discussion materials published by groups like the Kettering Foundation, Public Agenda and Everyday Democracy (often the same materials being used by students in the classroom). The deliberative approach embodied in these guides, which help people compare experiences, consider different views and talk about which option or combination of options makes the most sense, is helpful for civic education and civic action by both young people and adults.

For example, the Community Conversations Project in Bridgeport, Conn., has engaged thousands of people and changed the way public decisions are made in the city. “Democracy is hard,” says the city’s superintendent, John Ramos, in a Public Agenda report “Transforming Public Life: A Decade of Citizenship Engagement in Bridgeport, Conn.” “It’s easier to be autocratic, but I just don’t believe that you get the same kind of commitment. … If you’re talking about the work that has to be long-term and deep-seated I believe that this approach is most effective.”

These formats are a departure from traditional models of governance and education, in which the educators and officials were rooted at the podium and one-way communication was the norm. Creating a more equitable environment allows leaders to reduce tension, energize the audience (whether they are bored high schoolers or angry parents) and tap into the collective capacity in the room. In some cases, these more interactive opportunities can complement more traditional public meetings and restore some interest and faith in the political process.

“Before Kuna ACT got started, my husband and I were the only people who came to city council meetings,” says one Kuna resident, Zella Johnson. “Now, I know that if we don’t get there early, we won’t get a seat.”

Second, both school and community leaders are recognizing that the laws and standards meant to reinforce their work are increasingly out-of-date. Organized advocacy groups such as the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development argue that school standards, textbooks and standardized tests discourage deliberation and problem solving because they emphasize facts about the machinery of government. Teachers are not assessed or rewarded for their ability to foster discussion or find ways for students to test their learning and skills outside the classroom.

Despite the rise of service learning and the availability of innovative materials for classroom discussions, less time is allotted to social studies today than in the mid-1900s, and the social studies curriculum has been turned into formal political science rather than experiences with deliberation and other forms of active citizenship. This is unfortunate because, as Notre Dame political scientist David Campbell has found, almost all of the educational benefits that appear to arise from taking social studies actually come from the discussions that occur in those classes.

Similarly, most official public meetings continue to operate by the same stifling, old-fashioned formats, despite the fact they are increasingly disliked by both public officials and citizens. Most city council meetings, public hearings, school board proceedings, zoning board hearings and other public meetings attract fewer and fewer people — unless controversy has erupted, in which case the crowd is large and angry, and both citizens and officials go home frustrated. In many cases, these formats are legally mandated, either by state law or local ordinance.

Close to Home
Third, educators and public officials are realizing that people are energized first by the topics that hit closest to home — the issues that affect their daily lives and that they feel they may have some power to influence. Some of the best civic education programs get students thinking and talking about policies and decisions being made inside the classroom or the school — questions as apparently mundane as what should be served for lunch.

Projects such as the First Amendment Schools network bring together administrators who want to find ways to encourage responsible student input into school issues. Tools include empowered student governments; independent and uncensored school newspapers; and more innovative projects, such as community meetings that involve the whole student body. The new high school in Hudson, Mass., was even constructed to encourage frequent deliberations.

By learning about all the different views and variables in play on a given topic and by figuring out how they can come to consensus, work with decision makers and create tangible changes, students build a foundation they can use for addressing more daunting political questions. Studies show that students who feel they can make a difference in their own schools are much more likely to be engaged and interested in politics.

In Baltimore, high school students involved in Community Law in Action have collected evidence in support of class-action lawsuits. They identified violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act in their schools and were able to force the removal of alcohol and tobacco billboards from their neighborhoods.

In the same way, most of the new examples of effective citizen involvement are projects that focus on local or even neighborhood concerns. The most successful examples of these efforts create change at a range of levels, from behavioral changes to increased volunteerism to collaborative projects to instances of policy change. The increasing numbers of state- and federal-level projects use the same strategies for recruitment and meeting design that have been pioneered at the local level.

Finally, the most established programs show that building in a range of participation incentives is critical for sustainability. To maintain their enthusiasm over time, both young people and adults need different activities to take part in. For example, service learning can be combined with other democratic opportunities, such as deliberation, community research, political advocacy or managing voluntary organizations.

For adults in particular, it is important to think about social and cultural incentives, as well as political ones. In addition to the desire to affect an issue they care about or an interest in public affairs generally, people are motivated by the desire to see their friends, to enjoy food and music, to show off the accomplishments of their children and to feel a part of the community. Lois Giess, a city councilwoman from Rochester, N.Y., says, “We sometimes forget that people are desperate for social connections. These experiences fill a void in their lives.”

One of the best examples is the Jane Addams School for Democracy in St. Paul, Minn., which connects recent immigrants with college students, high school students and other local residents in ongoing “learning circles,” small, deliberative groups that allow participants to compare experiences and discuss topics of shared interest (there is also a learning circle for young children). Two straightforward goals of these activities are to help people learn about each other’s languages and cultures and help them attain the knowledge and English skills they need to pass the U.S. citizenship exam. However, the discussions have led to several projects and outcomes over the last nine years as participants compared experiences and generated ideas for improving St. Paul’s West Side neighborhood.

One key to its enduring appeal over 10 years is that the Jane Addams School provides social and cultural connections, not just political ones. One-half of each meeting is devoted to political issues and questions. The other half is a cultural exchange in which the participants share food and music, explain cultural traditions or engage in storytelling.

Strengthening Linkages
There are three significant ways in which we can strengthen both civic education for young people and involvement opportunities for all citizens:

Re-examine laws and standards at the local, state and federal levels and evaluate how they support (or fail to support) the best practices in civic education and citizen involvement. Educational policies should encourage or even mandate the study of civics and incorporate discussion into the standards and evaluations. The legal framework for public meetings also should make room for dialogue, deliberation and problem solving by ordinary citizens.

Provide greater access to training and technical assistance to help educators and other local leaders hone their democratic process skills. Learning how to organize and moderate deliberations that are balanced, civil and substantive should be an essential component of the education of teachers and public administrators.

Training and technical-assistance opportunities have expanded dramatically in recent years (led by nonprofit organizations such as the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago and Street Law on the school side and groups like Everyday Democracy, the Kettering Foundation and AmericaSpeaks on the community side), but the supply is still far outstripped by the demand.

Reposition schools as centers of democracy education for people of all ages. One emerging irony in this work is that civic education for students and attempts to involve parents in school planning and decision making are usually viewed as completely unrelated activities.

There are strong reasons for making this connection. First, by involving young people like high school student Matt Basinger, communities can unleash some incredibly catalytic leaders. Second, stronger civic education for parents and other adults might lead to better support for their children’s learning at home, a more productive role in the schools and a more active role in community decision making.

Elementary schools could follow the lead of the Jane Addams School by beginning regular monthly programs that include social time, cultural exchanges and activities that highlight student learning, along with discussions of issues and decisions facing the school. High schools could be the centers for a range of connected activities, including deliberation-intensive civics courses for students, service-learning opportunities for youth and adults, and evening meetings on school issues that involve both young people and parents.

By strengthening the connection between students as citizens and adults as citizens, educators might transform the role of schools in local democracy.

Matt Leighninger is executive director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium in Washington, D.C., and the author of The Next Form of Democracy: How Expert Rule is Giving Way to Shared Governance — And Why Politics Will Never Be the Same. E-mail: mattleighninger@earthlink.net. Peter Levine is director of research and director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.