U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is prioritizing formation of the whole person, including citizenship education.
The U.S. Department of Education recently posted 11 priorities for use in the government’s discretionary grant programs that cover a variety of educational issues, from school choice to more efficient use of tax dollars to promoting science, technology, engineering, and math.
“Priority 4” on the list is “fostering [the] knowledge and promoting the development of skills that prepare students to be informed, thoughtful, and productive individuals and citizens.” The Secretary of Education’s priorities, published in the Federal Register in mid-October, explain why it’s critical for schools to help students develop good character and a strong sense of citizenship.
“Research suggests that self-regulation, perseverance, and social skills play an important role in students’ academic, career, and life outcomes,” the notice states. “Unfortunately, national assessments suggest that our students often lack such skills.”
According to the Education Department, the average scores of 8th graders on the National Assessment of Education Progress civics test only increased by four percentage points between 1998 and 2014, and remain far below proficiency.
“Additionally, numerous international studies indicate our nation’s students are not performing as well as students in other countries. On the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), 15-year-old students in the United States performed near the . . . average on financial literacy and slightly better than the . . . average on problem solving,” according to the notice in the Federal Register.
A major issue is that a large percentage of 15-year olds—about 18 percent—did very poorly on both assessments, scoring below the second of five levels on the PISA test.
According to the Education Department:
For the United States to compete globally, schools must better prepare students to obtain each of these types of skills. It is especially critical for students to master these skills as the number of jobs created by new businesses has substantially declined since the 1990s. In addition, while the number of business startups has climbed back to pre-2007-to-2009 recession levels, such activity has declined over the long term compared to peaks in the 1980s. Promoting the development of these skills can prepare students for later in life and prepare them for employment or entrepreneurship. This, in turn, will foster a learning society and ultimately boost Americans’ quality of life.
To that end, U.S. Education Department officials are calling on schools to develop projects that target a variety of the “priority areas.”
They include “fostering knowledge of the common rights and responsibilities of American citizenship and civic participation, such as through civics education,” as well as programs that “better prepare students for employment, responsible citizenship, and fulfilling lives” and promote “positive personal relationships with others.”
The Education Department is also looking for schools to help students develop “determination, perseverance, and the ability to overcome obstacles,” and “self-esteem through perseverance and earned success.”
Other “priority areas” involve helping students “control impulses and work toward long-term goals,” and “instruction in time management, job seeking, personal organization, public and interpersonal communication, or other practical skills needed for successful career outcomes,” according to the notice in the Federal Register.
These are certainly skills that employers are looking for, but they must be part of a coherent character that develops virtuous habits of kindness, loyalty, and courage. And rather than simply focusing on developing skills, efforts like the Education Department’s are best when they use the language of character and virtue, which signals that there are standards and commitments outside the individual student that should inform their lives.
“Subjectivity [required for effective character development] has given way to a subjectivism in which the experiences, interests, and sentiments of the autonomous individual are enshrined as the standards defining the height, length, and breadth of moral hope and possibility,” James Davison Hunter wrote in his book, The Tragedy of Moral Education in America.
If we wish to avoid further financial crises, corporate scandals, and social turmoil in schools, the standards of ethics and morality must be rooted in sources that help students understand right and wrong, and help them to make the right decision when it is difficult. Excellent examples can be found in The Content of Their Character: Inquiries into the Varieties of Moral Formation, as well as the Jubilee Centre’s character education framework.