Liberal Education

Civic Learning for Democracy’s Future

In the 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama spoke of education as a national mission. The president believes we are at a “make-or-break moment” for the middle class. What’s at stake is the very survival of the basic American promise that if you work hard, you can do well enough to raise and educate a family, own a home, avoid bankruptcy or worse from a health care crisis, and retire with security. He said that education is essential to help middle-class Americans become full contributors to our nation’s economy.

Today, the unemployment rate for Americans with a baccalaureate degree is about half the national average. Their incomes are twice as high as those who don’t have a high school diploma and nearly two-thirds more than students who did graduate from high school. But as the American Association of Community Colleges has expressed in many venues over the past few years, we’re not talking only about the economy; we’re talking about what American means to us, about our values, and about the future of our democracy. For many of us who are worried about our future, this is a déjà vu moment: a nation at risk once again, here at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

President Obama has called upon us to keep college affordable, to enable unemployed workers to enter or return to college in order to prepare for new careers, and to put highly effective teachers into every classroom—not only to help today’s youth and adults, but also to prepare the next generation of students to succeed in the knowledge economy as lifelong learners and citizens who are engaged in working and contributing to our global society. In the State of the Union address, President Obama underscored the point that a college education is more essential now than ever before. But he also underscored that it’s more expensive than ever. “In the United States of America,” he said, “no one should go broke because they chose to go to college.”

In the past two and a half years, the Obama administration has made the biggest investment in student aid since the G.I. Bill through Pell Grants, direct loans, income-based loan repayments, and public service loan forgiveness. Going forward, the president is asking everyone to take responsibility, to do their part, so that Americans today and tomorrow will have the opportunity—and will be able to afford—to go to college, earn their degrees and certificates, and contribute to our social, civic, and economic prosperity.

We will continue to work as hard as we can to protect the Pell Grant program, to stop the interest rates from doubling, to extend the American Opportunity Tax Credit, to double work-study jobs for students, and to seek additional support for higher education. But we ask that states, colleges, and universities do their part to keep college costs down.

Furthermore, over the past three years, the Obama administration has made unprecedented investments in reforming the education pipeline. And we are beginning to see these investments yield results. Forty-five states and the District of Columbia have adopted a set of common core standards designed substantially to increase student proficiency in English and mathematics, demonstrating that our high school graduates are ready for college-level work. Our goal is for high school graduates to be “college and career ready” upon earning their diplomas. The work ahead is for postsecondary institutions to affirm that high school graduates really are ready! Additionally, funding from several Race to the Top federal competitions is enabling twenty-one states to reform their K-12 standards and assessments; improve professional development and evaluation of K-12 teachers; create robust, interoperable data systems; turn around the lowest performing schools; and/or build world-class early-learning programs to ensure that children are ready to learn in our elementary schools.

Regarding postsecondary education, more than nine and a half million college students are using Pell Grants to help pay for their education—more than a 50 percent increase since President Obama took office. We’ve also simplified the federal student aid application in order to cut the average completion time in half. More than twenty-two million students will complete the application this year—a 35 percent increase over the past three years. In addition, the Obama administration has made college more affordable by increasing the maximum Pell Grant award by more than $800.

President Obama knows that education must be central to our nation’s mission, and he understands that the leadership you are providing and the work you are doing are essential to the future of our democracy, not only our economy.

At the beginning of 2012, we made great strides in our effort to reverse the US “civic recession” and to redefine civic learning and democratic engagement for the twenty-first century. On January 10, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan joined a host of administration and educational leaders at a White House–sponsored event held to launch a national conversation on the importance of educating students for informed, productive citizenship. As part of that event, over seventy-five organizations and individuals announced commitments to help advance civic learning in America. It was an inspiring day. The challenge now is to define our goals for the next decade and to work boldly in order to achieve them.

To that end, on that day, we released two important reports. The first is A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future, the final report of the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement that was commissioned by the Department of Education. The second report, written and published by the department itself, is titled Civic Learning and Engagement in Democracy: A Road Map and Call to Action. This second, federally focused report identifies nine steps the Department of Education will take to advance civic learning and engagement—from adding civic indicators to student surveys, to promoting public service internships and careers, to more effectively leveraging federal programs and public-private partnerships.

Ensuring all students are ready for college, career, and citizenship

Civic learning, and education’s vital purpose to cultivate engaged and effective citizens, is a national imperative. And by civic learning we certainly mean civic knowledge and skills as instructional content, but we also mean opportunities for increased social engagement as applied learning—as a strategy to deliver more effective instruction, across a broad range of disciplines.

At the federal level, President Obama, Secretary Duncan, and all of us in the administration believe that offering all students a world-class education is a moral obligation and an economic necessity. We also see this as a civic call to action. President Obama has challenged us to reclaim the world’s highest proportion of college graduates by 2020. He calls this the drive to “win the future” by out-innovating, out-educating, and out-building the rest of the world. But the president has made it clear that winning the future also means preserving this country’s treasured democratic values, and instilling and passing them on to each new generation.

We must fulfill the public mission of higher education, in order to help students fulfill their civic and social responsibilities and to prepare them to succeed in a world of unprecedented complexity and interconnectivity. In fact, many skills acquired through civic engagement are the same twenty-first-century skills that employers want. Civic education is consistent with President Obama’s goal of regaining our competitiveness in the global marketplace, and it is consistent with the goal of increasing stu​dent achievement and closing achievement gaps.

Diverse students on the value of civic learning

This was a theme throughout the January event at the White House, but it was particularly clear during a session that involved several student speakers and youth advocates. Dantrell Cotton, a graduate of Chicago’s High School of Agricultural Sciences and now a student at the University of Wisconsin, spoke of the benefits of the hands-on education he’d received, which engaged diverse students in problem solving in school and community settings. He emphasized the importance of valuing students’ opinions, giving them a voice in decision making, and offering them opportunities to serve as role models for their peers. He suggested that for our democracy to be sustainable, students need the experience of collaborating successfully, of seeing democracy in action, and of being empowered to effect change as part of the learning process.

Nikki Cooley, now a program coordinator at Northern Arizona State University, spoke about civic learning’s power to engage students from diverse backgrounds in culturally relevant ways. She sketched her background as a Navajo student from a region where 80 percent of residents lack electricity and running water. Her parents’ home was just wired for electricity last year, and they still haul their water—a fifty-mile round trip. She asked, “How did I go from hating math and science to having a master’s degree in forestry? How did I end up working with scientists to design a curriculum that incorporates climate change models?” Nikki’s answer? It was because she had been given the chance to work on projects that moved math and science from theory to practice, through issues that mattered to her as a Navajo woman. One such project included hands-on work with the Cherokee Nation in North Carolina, and combined qualitative and quantitative methods in fire science. She called it her “light-bulb moment.” She realized that by mastering math and science, she could help overcome obstacles faced by her tribe and other native communities. Her message was that by democratizing education, by empowering students through relevant educational and cultural opportunities, we can close the achievement gap, energize diverse learners, and strengthen our democracy.

Secretary Duncan expanded on this theme in his closing remarks. He talked about his experience in the Chicago public schools, as they moved to institute a public-service requirement. He said that many students ended up exceeding the forty-hour requirement and, instead, completing five hundred, seven hundred, even one thousand service hours. For the first time, students from every background had structured opportunities to make a difference in their communities, and they were hungry to engage and contribute. He spoke of the similar impact of the Mikva Challenge, which trains high school juniors and seniors to serve as election judges in Chicago. These students help strengthen the democratic process before they themselves can vote! And he spoke of his experience with the Chicago public schools’ student advisory council, which informed the work of his management team and helped him, as the school superintendent, incorporate student perspectives in his policies for reform.

Secretary Duncan noted that service learning is too often seen as the purview of privileged students, with their less-privileged peers being the recipients of these services. He called on all of us to democratize service learning and democratic engagement so that all students can discover the impact they can have in changing the world around them. That’s a challenge I reiterate here. And it’s in this context that I’d like to address Civic Learning and Engagement in Democracy: A Road Map and Call to Action, which outlines the Department of Education’s role in civic learning and the nine steps we will take to serve as a constructive catalyst for change.

Many of our efforts already support civic learning and democratic engagement. For example, the Federal Work-Study program currently mandates that institutions of higher education use at least 7 percent of their total awards to provide community-service jobs for students. In 2009–10, $222 million went to fund community-service jobs, along with a much larger pot of nonfederal matching funds. And President Obama called for doubling work-study funding for fiscal year 2013 in his State of the Union address.

To cite another example, our Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships is working with the White House and the Corporation for National and Community Service to oversee the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge. To date, more than 270 colleges and universities have committed to a year of interfaith and community-service programming on their campuses. For their interfaith initiative, participating college students select one service priority in areas like poverty and education, health services, or support for veterans and military families. But there’s more we can do; we have 6,700 community colleges, four-year colleges, and universities throughout our nation. We invite more institutions to get involved.

In our increasingly diverse world, being educated in a diverse environment prepares young people to compete in the global economy and to participate fully in our democracy. Our agency joined the Department of Justice in releasing national legal guidance on how schools, colleges, and universities may voluntarily promote diversity in higher education. Diverse learning environments strengthen the civic and political life of our nation, break down stereotypes, promote racial understanding and tolerance, and enhance the quality of education. The Obama administration is committed to helping education officials understand how legally to pursue diversity in ways that foster equity and excellence.

The nine steps in the federal road map

Still, beyond those three examples, there’s much more that the US Department of Education can do to create a climate that promotes the efforts of colleges and universities to advance civic learning and democratic engagement. The nine steps presented in Civic Learning and Engagement in Democracy are a great start.

The first step is to convene and catalyze schools and postsecondary institutions in order to increase and enhance the quality of civic learning and engagement. In the years ahead, we’ll redouble our efforts to promote institutional commitments to provide strong civic learning opportunities, from grade school to graduate school, and to increase public awareness of education’s role in developing informed citizens. For example, we’ll encourage states, schools, and postsecondary institutions to conduct civic audits, develop plans, and publish progress reports about their efforts to equip students to lead engaged civic lives. We’ll also encourage postsecondary education leaders to join civic-learning partnerships and to implement recommendations from leading national efforts.

The second step is to identify additional civic indicators. As part of our department-wide emphasis on evidence-based decision making, we’ll support the development of improved indicators to identify students’ civic strengths and weaknesses, and we’ll support the field in crafting appropriate responses. To amplify tools like the National Assessment of Education Progress civics exam, we’ll work through the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance to add to the upcoming National Longitudinal Transition Study questions about high school students’ transitions to postsecondary experiences. And we’ll disseminate these and other civic data to educators and the public.

The third step is to identify promising practices in civic learning and democratic engagement, and encourage further research to learn what works. For example, the department’s National Center for Education Research will include language in forthcoming requests for applications to emphasize that approaches to civic learning and democratic engagement are appropriate targets of intervention for improving academic outcomes. We’ll solicit promising civic learning and democratic engagement practices as part of an upcoming request for information on strategies to increase college completion. And we’ll encourage schools and higher education institutions to assess the impact of civic learning initiatives on the civic and economic health of the school or campus and the community.

As the fourth step, we’ll look for ways to leverage federal investments and public-private partnerships in support of civic learning. The department will encourage grantees and grant applicants to include civic learning and democratic engagement initiatives in federally funded educational programs, where possible. Where appropriate, we’ll emphasize these activities as allowable uses of program funds, and consider adjusting program criteria and reporting outcomes to give them a stronger focus. We’ll also encourage grantees to pursue public-private partnerships with businesses, foundations, and community-based organizations in order to advance their civic learning and democratic engagement goals.

Our fifth step is to encourage community-based work-study placements under the Federal Work-Study (FWS) program. The department will encourage expanded efforts to place FWS students in assignments tailored to their interests in federal, state, or local public agencies or in private nonprofits. And we’ll encourage postsecondary institutions and organizations to track civic outcomes for students and the community, and to share promising practices.

On a related note, step six is to encourage public service careers among college students and graduates. We must attract top talent to public service careers in teaching, public safety, and other fields. The Obama administration is taking steps to make it easier for many borrowers, including those who devote their time and talent to public service, to repay their federal student loans through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program and the Income-Based Repayment plan. Beginning this year, the department will release an Employment Certification Form for borrowers interested in the PSLF program, making it easier to track qualifying federal student loan payments toward the PSLF benefit. We’ll also continue publicizing the program so that many more students learn of it. And President Obama has announced a proposal to cap federal student loan payments at 10 percent of income and to forgive remaining balances after twenty years. Those entering public service careers could be eligible for loan forgiveness after ten years. We look forward to working with higher education stakeholders to realize these changes through negotiated rule making processes.

The seventh step is to support civic learning for a well-rounded K-12 curriculum. The department’s blueprint for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) proposes a new competitive program called Effective Teaching and Learning for a Well-Rounded Education. This program would assist states, local education agencies, and nonprofits in developing, implementing, evaluating, and replicating evidence-based programs that contribute to a well-rounded education—including civics, government, economics, and history. Other disciplines could also incorporate evidence-based civic learning, service learning, and other engagement initiatives. As we continue to call on Congress to reauthorize the ESEA, we stand ready to implement this new program.

Our eighth step is to engage historically black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, tribal colleges and universities, and Asian American/Pacific Islander–serving Institutions in a national dialogue to identify best practices in civic learning and engagement. These institutions have a proud record that includes preparing students to be national and community leaders in civil rights, the sciences, engineering, and medicine—to name just a few of the fields in which students historically underrepresented in American higher education have gone on to become national and state civic leaders. The department will encourage these institutions to maintain their focus on developing civic leadership and will encourage minority-serving institutions to identify best practices that might benefit all of America’s institutions of higher education.

Finally, the ninth step is to highlight and promote student and family participation in educational programs and policies at the federal and local levels. President Obama’s first executive order was a memorandum to federal agencies about making government more transparent, participatory, and collaborative. Consistent with that call, the Department of Education will identify and promote opportunities for students and families to participate as collaborators and problem solvers in education. Many initiatives, such as our K-12 School Improvement or Promise Neighborhoods grants, include opportunities for students, families, and community leaders to help shape solutions to challenges at the local level. In addition, we regularly invite public input on federal education policy making—from draft regulations, to reauthorization proposals, to new grant priorities. We will identify and highlight additional opportunities to involve students and families in the department’s public comment process.

We want to engage diverse learners, institutions, and organizations directly in our work at the Department of Education, and ultimately to provide all students with deliberate, rich, structured opportunities to explore the benefits and obligations of civic life by tackling challenges and designing solutions in their own schools, campuses, and communities.


In 1947, a student at Morehouse College wrote a piece about the purpose of education for his campus newspaper. A junior pursuing a bachelor’s degree in sociology, he said, “We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.” This young man was determined to translate the character gained through an excellent education into the type of conduct that uplifts the community in the struggle for justice, for freedom, for human dignity, and for basic human rights. And indeed, he did go on to adjust the balance for civil rights in America, leaving an incalculable record of leadership and inspiration.

Of course, that young man was the future Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose life and legacy we now celebrate in a national day of service. Dr. King and his colleagues in the civil rights movement—many of them students, from grade school to graduate school—exemplified civic agency. They showed America, and the world, what it takes to act cooperatively and collectively to address society’s problems and build better communities.

The students who spoke at the White House in January—and the countless others like them—are Dr. King’s successors. They are America’s future public servants, problem solvers, entrepreneurs, inventors, artists, scientists, and leaders. They’ll be the heartbeat of our common culture, the stewards of our shared civic life, and the trustees of our values. If we give them the knowledge, skills, tools and experiences they need today, they will rise to meet and master tomorrow’s challenges, in our nation and around the globe. This our call to action!


National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement. 2012. A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

US Department of Education. 2012. Advancing Civic Learning and Engagement in Democracy: A Road Map and Call to Action. Washington, DC: US Department of Education.

Martha J. Kanter is US under secretary of education. This article was adapted from a presentation at the 2012 annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. This article is in the public domain.

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