Our Democracy Is Vulnerable. Are Schools Helping?
New research finds that districts are failing to prioritize civics education.
Posted November 20, 2020
“California’s school districts pay insufficient attention to the democratic purposes of education,” reports new research out of UCLA and UC Riverside. “It is time to reclaim the democratic purposes of public education.”
John Dewey, the pioneer of American public education, saw schools as having the singular power to prepare the citizenry to participate in civic life. The past four years have put that preparation to the test. The deep disagreements in society have served to make it difficult to address the potentially existential crises facing the nation—a global pandemic, climate change, and racial injustice, to name a few. Such complex issues require the nation’s youth to be able to thoughtfully engage and act.
In “Reclaiming the Democratic Purpose of California’s Public Schools,” the research team surveyed and interviewed officials from the 977 school districts in California, which serve 6,299,451 students, and they analyzed a representative sample of mission statements from the websites. The research presented three key findings:
- Civic and democratic goals are marginal to districts’ missions.
- Civic and democratic commitments are absent from districts’ accountability plans.
- There are little staffing and infrastructure that supports this civic agenda.
These findings paint a bleak picture of the future of civic education and imply that the country as a whole is flirting with disaster. It appears that with all of the demands on public schools, democracy and the preparation of competent and engaged citizens have fallen by the wayside.
Civic and democratic goals are marginal to districts’ missions.
Of the school districts in California, 41 percent were completely silent on the social purpose of education. There was no mention of preparing students to participate in civic life. Another 44 percent spoke about the development of students for some form of role in society but did not mention civic or political engagement. Thus, more than five million schoolchildren in California do not receive an adequate foundation in civic education.
This is a problem that concerns many educators. Marie Muckenthaler, assistant principal at a Los Angeles Unified School District middle school, is one of them. “It’s extremely important to teach our students democracy, rights, and civic duties,” Muckenthaler said. “We fall horrifically short in providing that. If you talk to any millennial, they don’t even understand the three branches of government.”
Civic and democratic commitments are absent from districts’ accountability plans.
The state of California requires each district to complete an annual Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP) as a requirement for discretionary funding. The LCAP lays out priorities and plans for the school year. Only 13 percent of districts had at least one reference to the terms civics, citizens, citizenship, or democracy. The other 87 percent made no mention of any of those terms.
“We stand and pledge allegiance to the flag every morning,” a Los Angeles kindergarten teacher said. “But we don’t talk about why we are doing it. It’s ridiculous.” She requested anonymity for fear of retaliation.
There are little staffing and infrastructure that supports this civic agenda.
Staffing and infrastructure are the overlooked factors in most education shortcomings. Districts can want to do all sorts of things, but without staffing and funding, it’s close to impossible to accomplish anything. Staffing at the district level is woefully inadequate. Just 29% of the districts have a staff member dedicated to history and social sciences and no districts employed more than one person in this area.
Without the staffing and infrastructure, district decisions are often sent down from the state. That poses a problem. “Educators, not legislators, need to be making these decisions,” Muckenthaler said.
It’s no secret that politics are omnipresent and polarized. With the bifurcation of news and a flood of misinformation on social media, it’s getting harder and harder for young people to claim their roles and duties as citizens.
The study concluded that there is “both an alarming degree of inattention to the democratic mission of schools and a general lack of support for civic learning across the state.” While the authors did offer some suggestions for making change, they left no question about the problem. “Working together, we can ensure that all California youth develop the knowledge, skills, and capacities needed to participate fully and effectively in civic and political life. Our collective future depends upon it.”
Rogers, J., Hodgin, E., Kahne, J., Cooper Geller, R., Kwako, A., Alkam S., & Bingener, C. (2020). Reclaiming the Democratic Purpose of California’s Public Schools. Research Report, Leveraging Equity & Access in Democratic Education Initiative at UCLA & UC Riverside.