Schleifer is research director at Public Agenda, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and engagement organization focused on strengthening democracy, building trust and expanding economic opportunity. This is the second in an occasional series.
Rethinking how teachers teach civics and how students learn about democracy has never been more crucial.
Even before the 2020 election, many Americans were concerned about the state of our democracy. Then the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol reinforced the dangers of misinformation and extremism. The new Educating for American Democracy report for teaching civics and history reaffirms the importance of this work and provides a roadmap for pursuing it.
But schools can be more than settings for teaching and learning about civic engagement. Schools can also be places where people put democratic principles into practice. Not only can civics and history be more fully and equitably integrated into curricula and pedagogy, but schools and districts can also implement democratic practices to both improve how schools function and to build civic muscle.
This moment presents an opportunity to reimagine schools as incubators for more participatory forms of governance and decision-making.
Schools and school districts have historically lacked robust systems for teachers to work collaboratively on issues such as curriculum, student discipline and assessment. But a growing body of research shows that when teachers work more collaboratively, student outcomes can improve, teachers can be more satisfied in their jobs and teacher turnover can decrease.
In some schools, democratic processes and shared decision-making are already being put into practice. For example, students in some districts play roles in making decisions about spending through participatory budgeting or participate in student voice programs. Teacher leadership programs in places including Tennessee, Philadelphia and New York City — some of which work in collaboration with unions — provide professional development, coaching and networking so that teachers can have a greater voice in their schools and districts and in education policy. Unions in some districts also play roles in school improvement efforts in partnership with administration, such as in Meriden, Conn. Kentucky law mandates school-based decision-making councils that include teachers, parents and administrators.
What would happen if there were more widespread, sustained mechanisms to give teachers more of a voice in how schools are organized and operate?
Giving teachers more decision-making power could improve their job satisfaction and their willingness to stay in the profession. Retaining more teachers is important since teacher shortages were acute even before the pandemic, and in our recent survey 78 percent of teachers believed the pandemic will make it even more difficult to recruit new people to their profession.
The intense debate over when, whether and how to hold in-person classes during the pandemic may not at first glance feel like an issue for participatory decision-making. But scientific debates are also political debates, and in the case of in-person teaching and learning, they are also very personal debates for teachers, students and parents.
How much space is needed between desks? Do classroom windows open? Can elementary school students keep their masks on? What should we do about lunch? How can students interact with teachers and with each other during science labs or art classes? How can teachers do their best work while keeping themselves safe and healthy?
Our survey found most teachers think they should decide whether to hold in-person classes during the pandemic and that most parents agree. Beyond these concerns about masks, ventilation and distancing, teachers have seen firsthand how students have struggled academically, socially and emotionally during the Covid-19 outbreak -- isolated from friends and often in families affected by lost jobs and reduced incomes, and in too many cases grieving death in their families.
Our survey found both teachers and parents believe it is absolutely essential for K-12 public schools to ensure teachers have the resources they need to help students who have fallen behind academically or are struggling socially and emotionally because of the pandemic.
So what are the teachers' ideas for addressing those challenges in curricula, pedagogy, classroom management and assessment? These are all issues about which they can have a voice as experts in education practices, classrooms, students and communities.
Once the pandemic abates, allowing them to participate in decision-making can be an important way to make schools operate more effectively and democratically, to honor teachers' professional expertise — and put civics lessons into action.
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Hudman is managing partner at Vikasa Health, which invests in reducing social inequalities that make people sick, and the board chair of Generation Citizen. Warren founded that civics education organization and is a visiting fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, which seeks to strengthen global democracy by improving civic engagement and inclusive dialogue.
Our country is in the middle of a health crisis. The very foundation of our country's democracy is at risk. But there's an antidote that would tackle not only some of what ails us but also what's poisoned our governance. That medicine: Getting more political.
The disastrous mortality rate of the pandemic, with more than 534,000 people having died from Covid-19, has not just affected our physical health. More than half of all adults in the United States report their mental health has declined. This is especially acute in young people: Last year saw a 14 percent increase in emergency room mental health visits for children and a 31 percent increase for teenagers.
While the recent pace of vaccinations promises a healthier future, and coronavirus cases are declining across the country, this larger health crisis is not going away. The Trump administration's mismanagement of the pandemic is only the tip of the iceberg. Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, the public health infrastructure had been gutted, with funding cuts lowering the front-line public health workforce nationwide as much as 20 percent.
And while our health care withers, our country is in the middle of a crisis in democracy. For four years, the Trump administration destroyed long standing political norms, exploited and further deepened our political polarization, and carried out a full-throated assault on voting rights.
So we are exhausted — from the pandemic and our vitriolic political system.
But there is no return to an old normal. In a moment when the future of our country's health and democracy are both at risk, the solution is to actually get more political. Rather than turning away from politics, our cumulative health may be dependent on us working to build a better democracy in itself. Political participation is good for our health, and our health care system may be dependent on a healthier democracy.
If American democracy were a patient, a doctor might say its vital signs are a cause for concern. After the Capitol insurrection of Jan. 6, it is time for urgent intervention.
A range of studies agree the United States is hardly the world's governance ideal anymore; The Economist's most recent annual ranking pegged us as a "flawed democracy," the 25th most democratic nation out of 167 countries analyzed. Public trust in government has declined to near historic lows, with just 17 percent of Americans saying they trust Washington to do what is right. Fewer than 30 percent of young people even think democracy is the best form of governance.
The positive news is that our young people may be in the midst of a political awakening. They are so fed up with the status quo that the pandemic, and the inequities further unmasked by it, may lead to a historically engaged youngest generation.
Tufts University's Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, which studies the young electorate, estimates up to 55 percent of eligible voters younger participated last year, up fully 11 points from 2016. In many states, including Georgia, analysts indicate that young people swung the results.
Beyond elections, young people being activated and engaged politically on issues they care about -- like climate change, reproductive rights and gun control — can lead to policies that improve health outcomes for all of society.
But the act of civic engagement, by itself, has also been shown to improve health. Theoretical and correlational evidence points to positive associations between improved mental and physical wellbeing and such acts as volunteering, voting and having feelings of civic empowerment.
A study of 44 countries found that individuals participating in the electoral process — casting a ballot, registering people to vote and other campaign activities — reported better health than those not similarly active, regardless of socioeconomic status. Researchers in another study found people who did not participate politically fared worse, reporting poor health in later years.
Young people, especially those from structurally marginalized backgrounds, can experience civic empowerment gaps, which can manifest as avoidance of civic activities such as voting or organizing. This civics empowerment gap has been linked in extensive literature to health inequities.
To combat this civic empowerment gap, organizations like Generation Citizen promote experiential civics education programs in schools across the country. Recent research found that participants not only gained increased civic self-efficacy but also reported better physical health. Additional research has shown that voting and volunteering among adolescents and young adults is associated with better mental health.
The racial justice movement born last summer may also lead to health benefits — activism is associated with self-esteem, empowerment and self-confidence. Studies indicate that 40 percent of participants in Black Lives Matter protests last year were younger than 30. From the perspective of social capital theory, living in communities with strong social bonds appears to be good for your health.
We're sick and tired of the pandemic. And many of us are sick and tired of politics. But right now, for the sake of our cumulative health, and for the sake of our democracy, we need to continue to stay engaged. Our future, our own health, and that of our democracy, may all depend on it.
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At a time of extreme political polarization, a bold and comprehensive proposal reimagining civic education shows a path toward a healthier American democracy.
The "Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy," released Tuesday, provides guidance to national, state, local and tribal leaders on how to strengthen K-12 history and civic education practices and standards. This roadmap is the culmination of 18 months of collaboration by more than 300 scholars, educators and practitioners from a variety of ideological, demographic and professional backgrounds.
For decades, the public education system has failed to adequately prepare adolescents to be informed and engaged citizens. But this roadmap aims to change that by ushering in a renewed focus and investment in civic education.
When this project started in October 2019, "our constitutional democracy was not in good shape," said Paul Carrese, founding director of the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University and one of the project leaders. "Now we are all pretty convinced that our constitutional democracy is in peril."
"America's current state of polarization and civic dysfunction is the byproduct of our failure to invest in civic education for many decades," he said. "We've forgotten how to listen to each other, how to reasonably disagree on issues and why these civic virtues matter."
The federal government spends on average just 5 cents per student every year on civic education, compared to $50 per student on STEM curriculum, according to the 36-page report. And fewer than a quarter of eighth graders are considered proficient in civics by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
"Just as we invested in STEM education in response to the Cold War, the Sputnik moment, and the economic challenges of globalization, now in response to our dysfunction and failures of governance we need an equivalent scale of investment for civic learning," the report says.
At this stage, costs for the proposals have not been estimated.
"While EAD anticipates that funding would be needed from states, the federal government and/or philanthropy to support implementation of the EAD approach at the state and local levels, EAD has not developed or provided budget targets," said Peter Levine, an associate dean and professor of citizenship and public affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College and one of the project leaders. "Rather, those behind the initiative want to prompt the conversation about what it will take to prioritize and invest in history and civics education."
This roadmap is designed to provide the country's 60 million K-12 students with high-quality civic learning opportunities, to supply 100,000 schools with the learning resources they need to be "civic ready" and to train 1 million teachers in these subjects by 2030.
Educating for American Democracy is not a national curriculum or a mandate, but rather a starting point and framework for state, local and tribal educators to further develop lesson plans and curricula. The roadmap underscores the importance of exploring America's plural, yet shared, history through an honest accounting that acknowledges both the good and the bad.
Favoring depth over breadth, the roadmap includes seven themes, with no particular hierarchy: Civic Participation, Our Changing Landscapes, We the People, A New Government and Constitution, Institutional and Social Transformation, A People in the World, and A People With Contemporary Debates and Possibilities.
Rather than a list of facts or historical events, the themes are focused on questions that inspire and encourage students to become more engaged citizens.
"A history question would be, 'Who are we, the people of the United States, and how has the nation's population changed over time?' But a civics thematic question would be, 'Why is constitutional democracy dependent on the idea of the people?'" explained Levine.
The next steps are to curate the project's website to include thousands of examples of instructional resources and to work with state officials and civil society partners on implementation.
The Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy was funded with $1.1 million in grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Department of Education. The project was driven by a team of experts from iCivics, Harvard University, Arizona State University and Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life and Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.
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Campisi is an assistant professor of mathematics and statistics at San José State University and a Public Voices fellow with The OpEd Project, a nonprofit that promotes more diversity among thought leaders.
The systems by which we elect the president and House of Representatives are predicated in most people's minds by the idea of "one person, one vote." That simple idea is filtered though many political structures, however, and leaves different voters with different amounts of power. Proposals in Congress would give statehood, and full voices in the House and Senate, to both Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. This would result in a shift in the amount of power held by the existing 50 states, members of our federal legislature and individual citizens.
In order to understand how changes like this dilute or concentrate our individual political power, it is critical to understand the mathematical concepts underlying our political systems.
The apportionment of representatives to states, the drawing of congressional district boundaries and how the preferences of voters are translated into the winner of an election are all examples of ways that math determines the influence of one person's vote.
Mathematics permeates our world and the systems of our society — yet it is often left out of public discourse. In order to empower the people to understand the systems which ultimately govern their lives, this must be remedied.
A lack of public mathematical discourse leaves open the possibility citizens will be convinced by incorrect or illogical arguments. Last December, for example, Donald Trump claimed it was "statistically impossible" for him to have lost the presidential election. By calling on a mathematical concept that many people feel uncomfortable with, Trump was able to bolster his claims of fraud and fuel the unrest that followed.
As someone who develops and analyzes mathematical tools to detect gerrymandering and also teaches undergraduates about the math of politics, I face this tension every day. I developed my Math in Politics course in an effort to open students' eyes to all the different ways math plays a role in the inner workings of politics at every level. Several universities have developed similar courses in recent years. I have been excited to see how understanding the math principles that quantify concepts such as "fairness" and "power" have driven students out of complacency about our political systems. Now they feel that they have authority to determine the legitimacy of an argument and therefore make stronger decisions.
Many have only recently become aware of the Electoral College and how it influences election outcomes. The number of electors for each state in 2024 and 2028 will be determined by the reapportionment of the House coming this spring, which will be decided by the population counts from last year's once-a-decade census.
This allocation of House seats is not the only way the power of a person's vote can be diluted or concentrated. Following reapportionment, 43 states will redraw their congressional districts. (The other seven will have small enough populations to merit one a single House member.) Because so much political power rests on the outcome of these maps, they are often drawn to entrench or expand political power — as opposed to in order to represent the will of the people.
Such partisan gerrymandering, the drawing of election maps in order to dilute the influence of one party's voters, is a major issue of our time. How exactly gerrymandering manifests itself has been a highly contentious issue.
Historically, irregularly shaped districts have been the first sign of a problem. Unfortunately, determining which shapes are unfairly "irregular" has been surprisingly difficult. Furthermore, modern mapmaking technology and fine-grained demographic data allow for the creation of highly partisan maps with "reasonable" shapes. For these reasons there is a need for tools to detect gerrymandering which do not rely on such an "eyeball test." Each state's geography, voter distribution and recent election results must be considered to paint a complete picture of whether a districting map is unduly partisan.
Several tools have been developed and tested in the courts in recent years. Some of the results of these cases however, have shown a disconnect between the level of mathematical sophistication necessary to capture gerrymandering and the level of mathematical comfort of the courts and citizenry.
In rejecting a 2018 Supreme Court challenge to Wisconsin's maps, for example, Chief Justice John Roberts characterized as "sociological gobbledygook" the plaintiffs' mathematical evidence that the lines were impermissibly partisan. Roberts went on to imply the average American would be unable to understand, or appreciate, a court decision based on math.
The point is not how the court decided the case, but that one of the most powerful people in the country said publicly that Americans wouldn't trust a court that used formulas to set legal precedent. He was right about the importance of citizens seeing the Supreme Court as deciding cases on legitimate grounds, of course, but wrong not to recognize the potential for sophisticated math to solve complex problems.
This attitude will work to the detriment of both the experts and lay people — because it will move both groups further from common ground. It also relegates a whole family of legal, moral and practical standards to the realm of not understandable and therefore not legitimate.
We have all heard many calls, during heated arguments, to defer to the experts. There is no question the pandemic has been made much worse by ignoring experts in favor of gut instinct, blind optimism and downright lies. It is not possible for each of us to develop the expertise needed to make fully informed decisions about everything.
There is a more nuanced approach. While deferring to the experts, make sure the experts — especially my fellow mathematicians — work to make their expertise is as accessible as possible. Math should be part of the public discourse. It should not be a black box to be avoided.
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