Every Student a Citizen


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As a former public school principal, state legislator, founder of Kids Voting Hawaii and board member of the National Center for Learning & Civic Engagement, the lens with which I look at the world is, perhaps, from a different perspective than the view of traditional “educators.” In addition, growing up in Hawai`I, where there is a philosophy of aloha (unconditional personal regard for others) and kokua (unsolicited assistance), civic engagement is demonstrated and exemplified in how we live together in an island community. Being civil and civic-minded is learned at a very young age and taught by being and doing what comes naturally in an affinity culture where kindness, respect and helpfulness are expected – and practiced – as the norms of behavior.

In traditional educational settings, I believe there is the expectation that civic responsibility will be caught if children obey school rules, pass their courses and turn in their homework on time. The influx and plethora of technology options, coupled with a predominant focus on testing content, have impacted the connectedness that young people feel among themselves, with others and with the communities in which they live or work. Efforts to increase youth civic engagement, engender community problem-solving and perpetuate the values, dispositions or inclinations of civic responsibility exist sporadically across the state. They are, however, certainly not a consistent characteristic of our public education system. At the moment, perpetuating a legacy of civic awareness and participation in Hawai`i occur through the vision of school-level leaders, deliberate instruction by specific teachers, the energy of non-profit organizations and the generosity of corporate or business alliances.

As an example, in 2016, WeVoteHawaii (WVH) (also known as Kids Voting Hawaii) will celebrate 20 years as a not-for-profit, completely volunteer hui (group), initiated originally by the Rotary Club of Honolulu and implemented by 43 Rotary clubs across seven islands. WVH is the only statewide civic learning program in the nation to give students a real-life voting experience to learn about and practice the American right to vote in a voting simulation during Hawaii’s General Election. Other popular projects implemented across the state include the YMCA Youth in Government program, Project Citizen classroom curriculum, an annual “We the People: Citizen & the Constitution” contest, Mock Debate, Streetlaw classes and the Hawaii Council for the Humanities’ annual History Day.

Despite these activities, recognition of the importance of civic learning and youth engagement in our American form of democracy is not effectively reflected in Hawai`i education policies. That could change with an upcoming gathering of committed educators and business leaders who are intent on positively impacting the public school system and integrating experiences for youth to acquire the dispositions, skills and actions that contribute to self-governance – and civic engagement.

Hawaii Educational Policy Center recognizes that developing good citizens does not reside only on K-12 public schools, but is also the responsibility of private and independent schools, higher education, education reform groups, parents and the business community. Therefore, a larger dialogue among all stakeholders deserves consideration. The following thoughts are shared by Dr. James Shon, director of the Hawaii Educational Policy Center, regarding the attributes of a good citizen, highlighting the objectives of civics education and suggesting policy opportunities.

Creating the Good Citizen

Civic and citizenship education implies more than knowledge. We are really looking for what we might call The Good Citizen, with knowledge, obligations and idealism. Four key characteristics come to mind:

  1. The Good Citizen has learned and can remember key historical events in the creation and development of democracy, including seminal documents and the ideas contained therein; but it is not enough to have “taken” American and World history courses and scored well on tests.
  2. The Good Citizen has an intellectual capacity to critically analyze ideas, philosophies and interpretations, and to develop an active habit of mind in evaluating books, texts, media and all manner of communications; but it is not enough if the knowledge and capacity to think critically are not applied in the real world.
  3. The Good Citizen actively participates in civic life, including political life, but it is not enough to routinely vote every couple of years.
  4. The Good Citizen has an admirable character, genuinely cares about the wellbeing of other citizens in immediate community and the larger society, with idealism and sense of personal responsibility. Citizenship education is related to character education.

Boards of education might adopt clear and detailed policies on civic education. To ensure that such policies have significant impacts on graduates and their role as citizens, Hawaii Educational Policy Center suggests that an effective policy include the following:

  • Setting achievable knowledge and engagement goals for all graduates – that is, The Good Citizen ideal identified above.
  • Defining civic and citizenship education programs with clarity for parents, schools, teachers and students – including cross referencing civic education with character education, extended school learning and service-learning.
  • Facilitating implementation of the goals at the school and classroom levels.
  • Identifying and implementing reasonable and affordable formative assessments.

Jan Brennan, project specialist for the National Center for Learning & Civic Engagement contributed to and compiled this report. For more information or any questions, please contact Jan at jbrennan@ecs.org or (303) 299.3661. 

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