Opinion: Public schools are at heart of citizenship
July 4 marks our nation’s independence celebration and reminds us of our founding principles. It’s a celebration of fireworks and fun, but this year we find ourselves fraught with misgivings brought on by economic uncertainty, contagious disease and social unrest. We celebrate and honor our country; still we know we’re off track as a state and nation.
Imperfect and in need of transformation, public education is often criticized for not doing enough to help all students reach their full potential. Yet, schools may be the single driving force that can lead us to a better future.
Public schools are the cradle of public life, bringing together all races, cultures and economic classes across children’s formative years. Public education is the only government entity where the presence of every child is compulsory for 12 consecutive years. With this kind of platform, schools are uniquely positioned to rebuild civil society.
The first recorded school appeared in 1635 in Boston. Though the concept of public education does not appear in the Declaration of Independence or the U. S. Constitution, schools sprang up informally across the 13 original states with the goal of creating a literate citizenry to participate in the new republic.
The role of schools expanded with the growth of the nation. Modern goals include a broad curriculum, personal development and career preparation as well as fostering citizenship.
So far, no cut in state funding for schools has been announced and, while we don’t know exactly the additional costs, Kansas schools plan to reopen this fall with new provisions for the health and safety of students and educators. It’s the third challenge — life in a post-George Floyd world — that may be the most momentous test for schools and the one that brings us back to public education’s original and most important goal: the development of citizenship.
How can schools ensure respect for all students, create a culture of responsible citizenship and advance anti-racism? One way is to return to the emphasis on civics education that has declined in recent years.
Standardized testing increased significantly over the past decade and many claim this emphasis as a major reason for the decline in citizenship instruction. Supporting teachers with more time and resources for embedding citizenship practices across the curriculum in social studies courses in the early grades followed by Kansas history, United States history and government would be a step in the right direction.
Students benefit from learning the characteristics of a responsible citizen, then applying those to everyday life. It is important to understand fundamentals like the three branches of government; however, students also need to learn how to work toward equity in society and civility in personal and political interactions.
Many options are available for teaching civics across the curriculum for elementary through high school age groups. Founded by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, “iCivics” is one program that’s been used effectively in multiple Kansas schools, including Topeka. Moreover, iCivics ties its activities to specific state standards and its activities are free online.
Schools alone cannot change the state’s trajectory, and no one knows what the future will bring. But given the opportunity, Kansas teachers can prepare the next generation for civic responsibility, which historically is the original goal of public education and the most critical component of democracy that we face currently.
— Sharon Hartin Iorio is dean emerita at Wichita State University College of Education.