Strengthening Our Democratic Enterprise: Education Policy in the 21st Century

February 20, 2012 | Blog

This guest post is from Dr. Barbara Ferman, Founder and Executive Director, University Community Collaborative of Philadelphia and Professor of Political Science at Temple University. Please contact her directly with any questions or comments, at bferman@temple.edu .

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s White House speech on January 10, in which he heralded Action Civics as a promising model for engaging current and future generations in the democratic enterprise, appears to have generated cheers from some and set off alarm bells among others. Such debate is what democracy is all about and should be supported and encouraged. However, as is too often the case, the debate is mired in confusion as to the purpose and practice of Action Civics. As Executive Director of one of the founding organizational members of the National Action Civics Collaborative (NACC), I would like to set the record straight with regards to this very promising practice—what is Action Civics, what is the value added and what does it look like in practice?

Action Civics is an iterative process of issue identification, research, constituency building, action, and reflection that is used to address real-world experiences that apply to the lives of students. It is a process that embraces collective action, encourages youth voice, agency and leadership, and emphasizes the rights and responsibilities of citizens in a democratic society. In addition to building the skills, developing the knowledge and shaping the values that underlie a democratic society, Action Civics has been correlated with improved academic and behavioral outcomes. So, what is the problem? The problem is that students may embrace perspectives with which we disagree. This is a very real possibility but isn’t that what democracy is about? For example, I do not agree with Checker Finn’s perspective but I respect and absolutely defend his right to publicly articulate it. Democracy is not about unlimited freedom or irresponsible behavior, both of which threaten democracy. Rather, it is about learning to behave responsibly within a free society. Shutting students down or teaching about democracy in ways that are incongruent with its underlying principles does a disservice to the student, to education and to democracy. If we want our young people to participate in the larger society in ways that are productive, respectful, and that preserve our democratic institutions, we need to let them practice.

So, what does Action Civics look like in practice? What do youth take on when given the opportunity and support to make their voice heard? Here are a few examples from the founding members of NACC:

  • At Earth Force, youth are leaders in their community around issues like water quality, food access and energy consumption. They identify local issues important to them, and research the policy and practice behind those problems to create real, sustainable change. They meet with government officials, create awareness campaigns to share throughout their community, and work in partnership with local leaders to ensure their change is effective for the whole community.
  • At Generation Citizen, high school students, under the guidance of classroom teachers and college student mentors, have collaboratively developed projects on topics like school transportation policy, gang violence and food access. By learning traditional civic content alongside skills for civic action, these students have applied their civics knowledge to help to raise awareness, inform policy makers on their views, and make their voices heard on issues important to them, their schools, and their communities.
  • At Mikva Challenge, students have hosted mayoral candidate forums, served as election judges, volunteered in local campaigns, conducted action oriented research on a wide range of issues and worked closely with the CEO of Chicago schools and the Mayor to improve transportation and schools. 
  • At the University Community Collaborative of Philadelphia (UCCP), high school and college students have collaborated on a youth produced TV news show that airs weekly on Public Access TV. Upset by the disproportionate amount of negative media attention, these young people decided to spotlight positive contributions of youth. Involved in every stage of planning, production, marketing and distribution, these young people have acquired a wide range of technical, project management, communication, and media literacy skills as well as a much deeper understanding of role of media in a democratic society. 
  • Youth on Board, in partnership with Boston Public Schools, administers the Boston Student Advisory Council (BASC) to engage students in decision-making processes that affect their public education. BASC has been instrumental in improving learning environments by creating mechanisms for student feedback in official teacher evaluations, protecting student rights and providing recommendations on restorative justice discipline policies. 

This is only a small sampling of how youth are engaging in the democratic process to make improvements in their education, the health of their communities, the way media portrays young people, and the political process itself. They are learning to be citizens in a democratic society and behaving professionally and responsibly. This is Action Civics in practice. Hopefully, President Obama will share Arne Duncan’s passion for and embrace of, Action Civics as a powerful antidote to our engagement malaise.

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