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Secretary King: Strong Civics Education Helps Prepare Students to Tackle Inequity



More and better civics education helps kids become the type of citizens who will work against inequality in their communities that impact things like law enforcement, U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr. said at the National Press Club Wednesday.

Overall, schools and colleges should take preparing students to be citizens as seriously as they take getting them ready for post-secondary education, and the workplace, King said.

Voting is obviously a key part of that, said King, a former social studies teacher. But it doesn't stop there, he stressed. Students need to understand American history, the Constitution, and how government works at all levels, according to King. And they need to be able to inform themselves and understand the issues of the day, and be encouraged to volunteer in their communities.

He also said students also need to understand how to productively make their voices heard by learning to write persuasive letters to the editor or elected officials, or speak at a public meeting.

"Educating students about their role in a democracy was one of the original goals of public education in this country and it should remain so today, as our nation becomes more and more diverse," King said. "And right now it's clear that schools and colleges must do more to meet that goal."

His advice to teachers and professors: Make sure your classrooms welcome different perspectives, and figure out productive ways to handle any "uncomfortable conversations" that crop up.

These days, King said, those "uncomfortable conversations" could touch on tensions between law enforcement and "communities of color." Students need to understand that they can use their vote to advocate for changes to police training, including improving training for police officers on things like bias and cultural competency, and to put an end to racial profile, King said.

And King used current events to illustrate his point. For instance, he said, "students need to understand that the Constitution protects the right of Colin Kaepernick to protest during the National Anthem and why players across the country—including high school students are doing the same." That's a reference to the San Francisco 49ers' quarterback's refusal to stand for the national anthem to protest the nation's treatment of people of color.

King said students should also "understand and be able to explain with evidence why some people are offended by [Kaepernick's] decision or would choose a different way to express their views."

And, King said, "civics shouldn't just be an add-on" and can be incorporated into classes other social studies. For instance, students studying climate change in science class could find out what elected officials plan to do to address the problem. And in math class, students could be tasked with figuring out the ratio of liquor stores to population in different areas of their city—and asking elected officials about their findings.

"The biggest and most important outcome of all is that high-quality civic education prepares students to help the nation solve difficult, challenging, complex issues and make it a better, more equitable place to live with genuine opportunity for all," King said.

Questions and Answers

UPDATE: During a question-and-answer period, King said that guidance on Title IV, a new block grant in ESSA that students can use for civic education, will be coming out later this week. 

King was also asked about one of the biggest controversies in ESSA implementation: Supplement-not-supplant. And he again, made it clear that he doesn't think the department is overstepping its bounds in its proposed regulations on the spending issue. (GOP lawmakers, including ESSA architect Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, don't agree.)

"We're clear that the purpose of this law is to get resources to the highest-need students," he said.

And he pushed the Obama administration's "Second Chance" Pell grant program, which allows incarcerated people to take advantage of federal student aid for low-income students. Cutting the grants for prisoners years ago wasn't smart policy, King said. "We risk being penny-wise and pound-foolish," he said. "We spend much more over the long run if a person leaves prison commits other crimes and returns to prison."

King also said there are states that aren't investing as much as they should in education, including teachers' salaries. In particular, he talked about how some early education teachers aren't making nearly as much as elementary school teachers.

"And we need to make sure that the working conditions are good," he said. 

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