A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Let's really honor Independence Day

Here’s a message that needs to be shouted from the rooftops. From the L.A. Times, here is an article entitled, “Have we forgotten civic education?” by Marshall Croddy, the director of programs at the Constitutional Rights Foundation:
In the early afternoon of July 4, 1776, church bells rang out in Philadelphia celebrating the official adoption of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress.

Of course, the work of establishing the republic was not finished on that July day. Indeed, the nation "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal" — to use Abraham Lincoln's words — will always be a work in progress.

The founders knew this too. By the summer of 1818, their generation was passing away. The survivors fretted about the future of their legacy and whether the republic would endure. They believed that each new generation must be enlightened by the principles of liberty and prepared to fight for the rights that had been won.

For all of the founders — and especially for the author of the Declaration of Independence — education was the key.

As early as 1779, Thomas Jefferson had written a bill in Virginia proposing a system of public education and arguing that history should be studied by all citizens. In 1817, he again proposed a system of free public education for the state and the establishment of a public university.

His attempts met with failure — except the last. The Virginia Legislature deemed universal public education too costly and unnecessary, but it did authorize the creation of a university and appointed a commission made up of 24 prominent Virginians, including Jefferson, to propose a location for it. The commission's members included two former presidents (Jefferson and James Madison) and then-President James Monroe. Jefferson spent the summer of 1818 promoting his vision for the university and for education in general.

To escape the sultry heat of the summer in central Virginia, the commission convened in the town of Rockfish Gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Jefferson came prepared and quickly persuaded the commission to site the new university in Charlottesville, near his home in Monticello, where he could keep an eye on its development. Before the commission adjourned, Jefferson agreed to write up its findings. This was soon published as the "Rockfish Gap Report."

In the report, Jefferson again proposed a system of publicly funded elementary education that would ensure that all citizens knew their rights and their duties to community and country. He wanted students of higher education to be well-versed in political theory, have a strong knowledge of law and government and have the skills to reason and debate the issues. Among other things, he wanted quality history and civic education.

Jefferson's university was built, but the Virginia Legislature again ignored the recommendations for a universal education and curriculum. Only later was a system of public education put into place around the country.

So how is Jefferson's vision for a sound history and civic education doing today?

In California, we have a comprehensive, history-driven social studies framework and standards for all grade levels. Every high school student must take three years of social studies, including a U.S. government course, to graduate. On the surface, things look good.

But in truth, social studies is no longer a priority in schools and has not been for some time. Most recently, because of the national No Child Left Behind mandates and the school accountability system, language arts, math and science are emphasized. Resources for history/social science in terms of professional development, materials and even instructional time are scarce.

This is particularly true at low-scoring elementary schools serving underrepresented student populations, where instructional time for social studies has been greatly diminished. A cruel irony, really: those least empowered and most in need of the knowledge and skills of effective citizenship and advocacy are the least likely to be exposed to them.

Recent studies demonstrate that our nation and state are paying a price for this neglect. The California Survey of Civic Education conducted last year demonstrated that despite taking a course in U.S. government in the 12th grade, graduating seniors' knowledge of the structures and functions of government and of current political issues is very weak. Students averaged only a little over 60% correct on a test of their civics content knowledge, a low "D" on typical grading scales.

The survey also revealed that today's graduates are not inclined toward participatory citizenship. Less than half of high school seniors surveyed believed that "being actively involved in state and local issues is my responsibility."

Given these findings, it should be no surprise that young people's trust in government is appallingly low. Only 33% of high school seniors said they trusted "the people in government to do what is right for the country," and only 28% agreed with the statement: "I think that people in government care about what people like me and my family need."

It is difficult to fault young people for these views and attitudes, and, in truth, a survey administered to adults might well bear similar results. Given the daily fare of political scandal, partisan nastiness and negative campaigning, why would young people be inclined to trust in government or become politically engaged?

Studies such as the California Survey have brought to light the need for a renewal of civic education in our nation's schools. These days, there are groups — such as the Alliance for Representative Democracy and the Civic Mission of Schools — working in every state to improve civic education and preserve the social studies.

As you enjoy your Fourth of July activities, take a moment to reflect on Jefferson's summer long ago in Rockfish Gap. Then do what you can do make the founders' hopes a reality.

Mr. Croddy makes an excellent point. People do not just BECOME good citizens. In this day especially, when the most prolix voices in the political arena resound with either vapidity or hatefulness, when public and political discourse admits no disagreement, when those who claim to be compassionate often hector, attack, and vilify anyone who differs from them, when the freedoms enshrined in our beloved Constitution are literally under attack, when political campaigns are held in thrall to the highest bidders masquerading as caretakers of the public interest, we must ensure that all citizens feel that there is a burden we all must bear, and bear gladly, for the freedom we enjoy each and every day we breathe in the air of America.

That price begins with the sometimes wearying business of being informed about the issues of the day, and working to make the voice of the citizenry heard over the sound and the fury of the talking heads.

We are all eager to talk about freedoms. Freedom is not even half of the equation. It is time to rise to the responsibilities we also share as citizens of this wonderful country. These responsibilities include being informed participants in the political process. It involves truly embracing a spirit of self-sacrifice as embodied by our founding fathers, who offered up the lives and their sacred honor in defense of an ideal. We must demand that our country and its leaders live up to the ideals of freedom and liberty we have glorified since our earliest days. Nothing is more horrifying to me, especially as a teacher, than to hear someone claim they are too busy to pay attention to the political issues facing this country, or that they are too busy to vote.

At the very least, we must all understand the consequences of ignorance, and actively engage in fighting this threat to our body politic. An informed populace is an engaged populace.

Happy Independence Day!


At 7/4/06, 6:59 PM, Blogger Dr. Jan said...

Okay... here's my recommendations to new principals...

1. Beware the teacher who approaches you first, accepts you first… they are liable to not be all they seem.
2. Don’t think the teachers want you as their friend. They want you to handle business. When someone isn’t doing their job, they want you to compel that person to do their job; they don’t need any new friends, they need someone to make sure the school runs well.
3. Sit down with the teacher leaders (let the teachers select them) immediately and design a school-wide discipline plan that everyone agrees to adhere to. Agree on who will handle what and what will be the penalty for a range of behavior infractions. Don’t know where to start? Check this out for one school’s solution.
4. Don’t change anything the first year. Concentrate on developing relationships. Know who is who and what is what. Teachers really resent change, so the change better be warranted and accepted.
5. Meet with your teacher leadership team regularly. Tell them that they represent the rest of the school and that they must converse with other members of the faculty to see what the concerns are in the school. Insist that no one can come with a problem unless they also have a solution; you may not go with the solution, but at least it causes everyone to be thinking and not leaving all the problem solving to you.
6. Meet with your faculty regularly. Often, new principals don’t have routine meetings because they know how much they hated faculty meetings when they were a teacher. Don’t ever forget… you can’t develop a positive climate and culture without making sure everyone is there and participating. Make the meetings short, let everyone know what is going to be discussed (in advance), and respect people’s time.
7. Make sure that teachers understand the rules of engagement with parents. If a parent comes to the principal angry about a teacher’s action, you will always ask if the parent has spoken to the teacher first. If not, then you personally deliver the message to the teacher to contact the parent. You advise the parent that if the problem is not resolved after talking to the teacher to contact you; so you can resolve it. Ninety-nine percent of the time, you will never hear from the parent again.
8. You will never be as well loved as you hope. You must decide what your bottom line as a principal is… it should be to educate all the children in a nurturing environment that respects the rights of the teachers to teach and the students to learn. Anything else is in your way.
9. Consider instructional leadership to be the most important thing you do. In school terms, that means that you have a safe learning environment where kids behave and teachers are productive.
10. Do not subject your teachers to professional development. Make certain that you involve teachers in their own training and that anything presented to them is worth their time and effort.
11. Respect teachers. Respect teachers. Respect teachers. Accept respect in return and accept/give nothing less.
12. Keep current with your professional organizations. Nothing is worse than a has-been… except maybe… a might-have-been.
13. Don’t go drinking with your teachers. Students want teachers they can respect; and teachers want administrators that they can respect.
14. Accept that you are imperfect; accept that others are imperfect. Forgive.
15. Never mistake supporting teachers with the concept of unconditional support. If someone is wrong, find a way to help them save face; but never ever “cover” for inappropriate or unprofessional conduct.
16. If a teacher cannot or will not improve, make sure they understand that you cannot accept incompetence and give them a chance to gracefully exit. Some teachers need a fresh start, others need a different location; but once you warn a teacher, you must follow through. Incompetence must never be accepted by you. Teachers resent having to cover for incompetent teachers (even if they like them).
17. Be positive. No one likes a gritcher, moaner and complainer (even if they deserve to be that way); you set the tone for the school just the same as a teacher sets the tone for the classroom.
18. Do not be a workaholic and do not let your teachers be workaholics. Insist that everyone work unbridled during their work hours and then go home to a balanced life. Encourage balance and healthy lifestyles.
19. Write notes of appreciation on a daily basis. Thank folks who do a good job.
20. Accept that technology is here and that you must be a leader in it.

At 7/5/06, 12:05 AM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Wow. That's a great list!
I think the term "suck-up" belongs there on number 1, although if that's too blunt, how about lick-spittle?

I would also say on number 3, to then make sure you enforce the discipline policy impartially and fairly. The president of the PTA shouldn't be able to get special favors for his child through the administration.

Another thing would be to really listen. I have often seen principals checking email or looking off when a teacher was trying to speak to them about something important.

At 7/5/06, 7:37 AM, Blogger Superdestroyer said...

How can students learn anything about civics when most schools never get beyond the type of government taught by Schoolhouse Rock? How many schools are going to walk students through the civics process of building an office building or actually teach the real process of legislation, markups, ways and means, etc?

At 7/5/06, 9:21 AM, Blogger Deb S. said...

Ms. Cornelius, excellent post! Dr. Jan: Whoa! Superdestroyer: You make a great point.

I hope everyone had a wonderful Independence Day.

At 7/5/06, 10:15 AM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Superdestroyer, you make a great point. It's interesting that Boys State and Girls State are meeting right now in my state. But that only touches a small number of students.

At 7/5/06, 1:43 PM, Blogger Superdestroyer said...

Ms. Cornelius,

I have dealt, in th past, with congressional legislative aides who did not seem to understand the arcande workings of the government. They did not seem to understand what the EPA was responsbile for versus

In one instance it was obvious, based upon a memo drafted by an aide and signed by the Congresswoman, that the aide had guess who had actually policy development and regulatory oversight and had based their guess on nothing more than the titles of the agencies.

If an college graduate with a degree in government does not understand how an idea turnes into a bill that turns into legislation that turns into regulations, then how can we expect to teach junior high kids how the system works.

And if you really want to find an arcane subject, look up the planning, programming, and budgeting system that congress uses sometime.

At 7/5/06, 5:03 PM, Blogger Fred said...

Dr. Jan has said it all. I LOVE this post, Ms. Cornelius - thanks for putting it all down for us.

I hope you had a great holiday. I had so much fun on my last vacation, I'm going on another one tomorrow. See you when I get back!

At 7/5/06, 8:32 PM, Anonymous Lori Jablonski said...

I echo the kudos on your survival tips for rookie teachers (hell, good advice for all of us).

Even better is this one. I have been spending a good deal of time thinking about citizenship and our responsibilities to this republic ("...if you can keep it," replied Mr. Franklin). As teachers (I teach government myself) the most important thing we can do to instill civic values in our students is to model them as adults. In our lives and in our classes do we engage in critical reading and thinking and teach our students how to mull over a new idea…to really consider and contemplate? Or do we find ourselves parroting the polarizing – yet perversely quite entertaining – rhetoric of the talking heads? Do we embrace political activity and proudly declare ourselves political animals…political, as derived from the root, polis, meaning active public engagement with our students, our neighbors, our colleagues, our community, our state, our nation? Or do we cynically dismiss politics before our students and go about our own activities ever more disengaged from public life? Do we really listen to what are kids are saying? Are we interested in their lives? Do we involve them—really involve them-- in school decision making? (As teachers, we might be wondering now if our school or district really involves us…it is an important question…and perhaps that’s where our own political forays must begin.) Do we help them learn how to build relationships? Do we give them a taste of the world beyond the classroom, beyond their own neighborhood? Do we demonstrate to them how decisions made by others directly impact their own existence and from there inspire them to both pay attention and get involved…with the first step being to take control of their own learning?

I could go on and on. But each one of us concerned about educating citizens (not merely students) must begin by examining how we personally define civic engagement and what that looks like on our own lives.

Thanks for the opportunity.

At 7/6/06, 12:02 AM, Blogger quakerdave said...

It fascinates me that here in New Jersey, our state-mandated standardized testing (under NCLB) demands competency in writing, reading, math, and science, but, in spite of the fact that it's a required subject, NOT in social studies or civics.

If I was a cynical person, I'd think maybe there was a reason for that...

This in a state that's now officially "shut down" because a Democratic governor can't hammer out a budget with a Democratically - controlled state legislature.

At 7/6/06, 10:01 AM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Obviously I come down on the side of trying to reframe the debate-- and actually, this is a misnomer, since my point is that there isn't reasoned debate, and I believe this highjacking is a great disservice done by people who claim to love our country.


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