Educating for American Democracy: Saving the Frog in the Pot

By Gentzel Insights

The K-12 system is failing to educate students about American democracy, civics, and history education

By Ace Parsi and Tom Gentzel

The frog in the pot of warming water does not jump until it’s too late. These days, the saying feels particularly applicable to the health of our democracy. Years ago, it would have been shocking to consider arson and insurrection as new norms in our society—increasingly some are acting as if these actions are a new form of political speech. The toxic villainization of political adversaries, the rise of fake news, and conspiracy theories represents more and more kindling for the fire warming the pot. Inaction itself has become an active choice that will not make our country stronger or better.

Many factors affect our present social dynamics: the rise of social media, the decline of institutions that build national social capital, toxicity of discourse among leaders. The list goes on. In discussing these factors, we’d be remiss if we didn’t spend time considering the role of education, the one public institution that Americans mandatorily attend for 12 to 13 years at a formative stage of their academic and personal development. 

We see many signs of our education system failing in this regard. Surveys increasingly show more young Americans placing little value on the importance of living in a democracy. NAEP scores show the great majority of youth scoring below proficient in civics. And perhaps most telling, we know the physical amount of time spent in the social studies disciplines has been on the decline for quite some time. It has been said, we reap what we sow. We must use the present warnings to sow more and better civics and history education.

For the last year and a half, the two of us served on the Steering Committee of the Educating for American Democracy initiative.  This initiative is not standards and is not curriculum, but a roadmap that focuses on an interdisciplinary, integrated, and inquiry-based approach to civics and history education across K-12 education. The approach has garnered support from progressive, moderate, and conservative practitioners and experts in the civics and history education. Why? Politically, when you lead with questions in an inquiry-based approach to learning, you affirm the reality that those questions have progressive, moderate, and conservative answers. Pedagogically, when you lead with questions, students get to have greater ownership over their answers, educators have more agency in developing the experiences that facilitates learning, and both develop key skills in reaching those answers.

Development of those skills is a key step in Benjamin Franklin’s challenge when asked the question, “What have we got? A republic or monarchy?,” to which he responded, “A republic if you can keep it.” We keep it when teachers lean into tough questions; we keep it when families simultaneously give schools space to teach tough issues and support the development of skills through thoughtful conversation at home; we keep it when schools protect time for civics education to take place; and we keep it when districts, boards, and state and federal policy makers to create conditions for its success. Regardless of what we do, the act of keeping it as an active, not a passive enterprise.

We don’t have to start this enterprise from scratch: Many schools and districts see civic readiness as core to their mission, as do the many associations who support them. The importance of education to citizenship is the first public position of the American Association of School Administrators and is built into charters and bylaws of the National School Boards Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and a number of other organizations that make up the Learning First Alliance. In many places, the importance of powerful civic education is still the only area we still agree on because we understand it as a core purpose of a free and public education and society.

Will Educating for American Democracy’s goals be realized overnight or even in a year? Experience and history itself answers a resounding no. Reclaiming the civic mission of public education is not about a tweet, but a matter of long-term effort.  That fact can simultaneously be both overwhelming and encouraging for educators, school and district leaders—overwhelming  because of the responsibility it calls upon us and encouraging because so many in our education system feel deeply under water in responding to the pandemic.

Wherever you find yourself as an educator, a school, district, and/or organization who supports educators, schools, and districts, we urge you to take one step forward. Educating for American Democracy has had literally hundreds of national experts and practitioners that have contributed to the formation of the Roadmap, but its success will be incumbent on what each of us can do to elevate the broader civic mission of schooling conversation. So consider signing as an EAD supporter, build it into your mission, make educators aware of the initiative, and plan supports (whether that might be events, webinars, professional development, and/or other activities) to implement it.  Bold, one-time, and grand actions won’t save the frog in the pot. We save it, by taking measured, yet proactive and consistent steps to reduce the temperature.

Ace Parsi is the Outreach and Dissemination Lead at Educating for American Democracy. Tom Gentzel is founder of Gentzel Insights, LLC, and Executive Director Emeritus at the National School Boards Association.

Views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or its board of directors.

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