Your future called. It wants a better civics education.

A new national initiative is looking at demographic shifts and asking the question: Should schools go back to teaching good old fashioned civics again?

University of Washington professor Lance Bennett sees the challenge for civics education this way: You have to keep a realistic focus on "dutiful citizen" initiatives, while appealing to the changing civic concerns of younger "actualized citizens," who may view things through a personal lens. 

So, as a baby boomer who has shouldered responsibilities for the generations above and below me, I was intrigued by the premise of the Generations Initiative, a five-year effort to develop a multi-generational response to the demographic shifts underway in the U.S. The Initiative, led by Director Hilary Pennington, was presented to a multi-age, diverse group of about 60 Seattle-area community and civic leaders at a conference in early May. Dr. Manuel Pastor, director of the University of Southern California’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE), shared some national demographic trends, as well as Seattle-specific data.

Nationally, said Dr. Pastor:

  • By 2050, over 100 million Americans will be over age 65.
  • By 2040, the majority of Americans will be people of color.
  • The net worth of youth has decreased by 53 percent since 1984, yet the “dependency ratio is rising. Workers will need to work more to support older and younger family members."

At the local level:

  • The Seattle area is more diverse than the rest of the U.S. We are retaining our African American population. At the same time, both our Asian and Latino populations are growing. This makes us unique and puts a premium on coalition politics.
  • The states with greater youth/race disparities are the states that spend less on education.
  • Seattle-area “imports” are better educated than “home-grown” residents, and are doing better economically. Education is crucial for home-grown residents to be able to take advantage of economic opportunities here.

Changing demographics have strained economic and social welfare programs, such as Medicare, and placed renewed emphasis on providing equal access to education opportunities. For individuals and families, these shifting demographics will require significant strategic planning for an unfamiliar future. This is a game-changer in terms of understanding the future of representational governance, and it begs the question: What do we want our national priorities to be?

When I came of voting age, my sometimes-apathetic peers and I were often overshadowed by the anti-war and civil rights activists who preceded us. Still, we felt compelled to vote.

Yet a spring 2013 Harvard survey of voters under 30 found that many are disillusioned with government and major institutions (the military is an exception). A rise in vitriolic partisan politics and the struggling economy are partly to blame. 

Some are blaming this voting apathy on the lack of quality civics education in our schools.

Like South Lake High School teacher Webster Hutchins. Hutchins, who was recently named Civic Educator of the Year by the Washington State Legislature, has developed a plan to foster actualized citizenship in Seattle schools. He calls it his “Civics for All” initiative and he is a tireless promoter.

Hutchins wrote the initiative after taking a group of Franklin High School juniors to Olympia to participate in the 2011 legislative session. When they returned, his students testified before the Seattle School Board where they asked that all Seattle students be given the same political experiences and opportunities.

Hutchins wants civics to be a recurring theme in all K-12 social studies classes and for civics lessons to be woven into other classroom lesson plans, when appropriate. As an example, he cites a math teacher who had students practice their skills by determining income tax rates.

He also calls for all schools to hold annual mock elections, for high schools to play a leadership role in registering eligible seniors to vote and for increased media literacy instruction, with a focus on electoral politics and current events.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Jun 24, 7:29 a.m. Inappropriate

Wonderful! These goals are genuinely good, in the moral sense. I applaud that.

Education is only a tool and though it may be the best tool many have access to, that doesn't mean it will be utilized to the fullest extent. Culturally speaking, education does not matter nearly as much to our families and 'society' like it does to say young Korean or Singaporean families. There is something to say about kids who idolize Kim K. and Justin B..

While Seattle may have a tremendously diverse population, in terms of heritage, but economically speaking the cities poor/or on the poverty threshold (often black, Hispanic and Asian) live in dangerous areas that lack any sort of quality education or civic services. How is a child supposed to care about civic services when all they may ever interact with are police, human services, etc...?

Furthermore, talking about education, WA ranks 25th for education. States like Massachusetts wipe the floor with WA school systems. And while there maybe bright spots in WA as a whole, it is VERY unlikely the children that need better education will ever get it. Perhaps the best they can hope for is to have an average school system in an average state. Forget about civics education, learn to read and write beyond a 7th-8th grade level first.

Upstate

Posted Mon, Jun 24, 9:49 a.m. Inappropriate

"Last fall, Lynnwood High School government teacher Sharon Kriskovich was ordered to remove bi-partisan campaign posters from her classroom because of a complaint from the Washington Education Association. "

There's not an ounce of truth to this.

Ryan

Posted Fri, Jun 28, 7:51 p.m. Inappropriate

Campaign posters of any kind are not allowed to be in classrooms. Did she have any or not? Ounce of truth please.

Posted Mon, Jun 24, 11:16 a.m. Inappropriate

It seems that teaching kids to be functioning citizens (is that the same as being a "actualized" citizens?) has been a lower and lower priority of our state's education establishment over the years, and teachers who want to impart such knowledge have to sneak it into more "diversity centered" courses. The problem is, there is no substitute for understanding how representative government, the Constitution, the courts and civic responsibility function. The result of this neglect is that too many people see the government as nothing but an omnipotent dispenser of arbitrary rewards and punishments, and lack any perceived incentive to question whether it's engaging in practices it's entitled to or not. Anyone who works to elevate the visibility of civics in our educational system is helping to save our republic from death at the hands of its own people.

dbreneman

Posted Mon, Jun 24, 12:25 p.m. Inappropriate

Good points. This is what happens when a failing system produces the majority of the teaching cadre and increasingly this cadre posts SAT scores lower than the average toaster. The results of dummying down our teachers is that they have limited abilities when it comes to understanding and explaining complex concepts like representative government and it's role in a student's life.

Djinn

Posted Mon, Jun 24, 2:19 p.m. Inappropriate

Civics was a requirement to graduate from public high school when I was young. A passing grade for my civics class required reading the news in the paper, or watching the news for 15 minutes per day, and coming prepared to discuss.

I recall some (verbally) knock down drag out type debates, most famously over the Vietnam War and Ellsberg as one or more of ours had been arrested at Harrisburg, and ERA debates between the star basketball player and parent of two by different young women and his incredibly sexist comments versus most of the young women in the class.

Higher grades required doing one or two special projects, out of a long list of options. I recall preparing a talk about Justice William O Douglas, the decisions he was part of, and their impact on our lives. I also remember a few of us doing a survey research project about general political views which took a few weekends of walking around and interviewing people. We compared views by the faculty at the school, people in a solid middle/upper middle class neighborhood, and an underserved neighborhood. That taught me early on that it is very difficult to completely classify people as 'liberal' or 'conservative' and certainly not based on race, occupation, or class.

I know everyone got the basics, but the fact that ALL of the students were engaged in debates about current issues and forced to reflect upon how government works, and our role as citizens in that process, was something only that class provided.

I was raised to believe, and still believe, that the best protection our Democracy has is an educated citizenry. While we focus on basic math and language, shouldn't every high school graduate at least be able to pass a test in Civics that is the same as expected of those who wish to become new citizens?

Posted Mon, Jun 24, 2:56 p.m. Inappropriate

"South Lake Union High School teacher"

What high school is this?

Bravo to Hutchins. Civics goes to the heart of public education which is do we want educated citizens or trained citizens?

westello

Posted Mon, Jun 24, 4:26 p.m. Inappropriate

Correction: South Lake High School

Thanks for catching that, Westello. Perhaps I was thinking about July 4 fireworks.

Posted Mon, Jun 24, 3:16 p.m. Inappropriate

I think Washington Public School students are getting a civics education. It might not be approved curriculum or text-based, but it's an education, none the less. One they're unlikely to forget.

westello, the better question might be what do we have? Educated citizens or trained citizens?

KarenLee

Posted Mon, Jun 24, 4:35 p.m. Inappropriate

I am not seeing the collation of supposed demographic shifts with the need for true civics education at public schools. Demographic shift, or not, education in the structure of all levels of government, the rights of Citizens, the responsibilities of Citizens, and how Citizens may effect government, should be a priority in public schools.

Now, is Civics education what is being talked about with this article, or is the article talking about some kind of "hooray for diversity" propaganda, disguised as civics?

jhande

Posted Mon, Jun 24, 4:55 p.m. Inappropriate

Also, I think those under thirty have a low voter turnout, because their entire lives they have seen both Democratic and Republican politicians do nothing but work to diminish opportunity for Citizens; and correctly see no difference in the major political parties on issues of economic import.

Those under thirty have seen nothing of government, but lies, corruption, stupidity, suppression of Citizens, and a seeming enthusiasm for making Citizens powerless in deference to a Global Wealthy Class (Caste).

Other than some local elections, what is really the point of voting? Elections have turned into a joke of a choice between two major political party candidates bought by the same interests, and interested only in enriching their buyers. I do not blame Citizens for not voting. Why give the stamp of approval to a process, which in 2013,have turned our elections into Potemkin elections? Why vote, when most of the candidates work to screw you over?

The political reality of flagrant corruption in the United States over the last 30-40 years is obvious to any Citizen, who has studied Civics, and Government. This corruption is more than likely one of the reasons Civics education has essentially been banned from being taught at Public Schools.

jhande

Posted Mon, Jun 24, 5:47 p.m. Inappropriate

My son calls voting an encouragement of bad behavior and I do believe he and you are both right.

Djinn

Posted Tue, Jun 25, 6:20 a.m. Inappropriate

I wonder how the new Civic's classes would address the illegal alien issue? By rule of law?

Cameron

Posted Tue, Jun 25, 6:43 a.m. Inappropriate

Cameron, I imagine if the Civics instructor really wanted the students to know "how things work", they would start with the Geo Group's financial relationship with immigration reform lobbyists.

“All of these questions are designed to ask a kid’s opinion,” Hutchins says. “By giving kids a voice, you keep them in school.” Yet, none were asked their opinion for this article.

The author is underestimating the political savvy of a student by the time they graduate from high school. They're not stupid, they're young. They know how the system works or doesn't work in their community and they know their place in it.

KarenLee

Posted Tue, Jun 25, 1:25 p.m. Inappropriate

I think low voter turnout is directly attributable to the sense that one's vote doesn't matter. There is a lot of evidence to support that contention.

Decisions are not based on democratic ideals or what serves the common good, or any principles of government so much as they are determined by the desires of a select few who have purchased access to policymakers. That might not be so bad, but those select few are using their disproportionate influence to further enrich themselves and extend their influence at the expense of everyone else.

What's the point of participating in something as corrupt as that?

coolpapa

Posted Fri, Jun 28, 9:54 a.m. Inappropriate

This article was rather dissapointing, as it's not just a matter of people of color needing a basic grounding in civics, but there are actually more of the still majority of everyone who does.

The low voter turnout is not just a people of color issue. This is part of why we can't get anywhere with this by framing it in terms of identity politics. And identity politics more often divides than unites.

Only half in jest: Perhaps if they put some civics questions on the state mandated high school tests, we would make some progress...

Marksp

Posted Sat, Jun 29, 1:27 a.m. Inappropriate

Check out their PDF and it's sad to see the low percentage of college grads in the seattle area. While the area has lots of blue collar jobs (especially Pierce County), requiring vocational degrees, the low rate of college grads in King County is unacceptable.

In fact, it's appalling that only 54% of residents of nearly 100% white collar Bellevue have gone to college, compared to "equivalent" surburban areas such as Orinda and Lafayette, CA (both about 75%).

With all that money in Bellevue, only 54% have been to college?

How about building Cascadia University, that Gov. Booth Gardner proposed about 20 years ago? How about expanding the Evergreen State College, they have lots of land to do so?

Pastor and Pennington, USC, PDF -

http://www.generationsinitiative.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/USC_ManuelPastor_SeattlePresentation.pdf

TomLane

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