U.S. Department of Education Secretary John King on Civic Education

October 19, 2016

U.S. Department of Education Secretary John King delivered remarks to the National Press Club in Washington, DC. at 1pm. The event was live streamed on C-Span from this link.

King spoke about the importance of civics as part of a well-rounded education and also discussed civic engagement as a cornerstone of democracy and emphasized the opportunity, presented by the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), to better serve children across the nation, highlighting in particular the importance of educators in fulfilling this promise. The full Press Release below.

Additional streaming sites include:  http://www.press.org/events/npc-luncheon-education-secretary-john-b-king or via YouTube at this link: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCvbN59rrm8KGGRdysGo4WIg.



U.S. Department of Education 

Office of Communications & Outreach, Press Office 

400 Maryland Ave., S.W. 

Washington, D.C. 20202 




Oct. 19, 2016



Press Office, (202) 401-1576 or press@ed.gov



Excerpts from Prepared Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. for the National Press Club Speech on Civics Education 

Note: Remarks as prepared. Speaker will likely deviate.


“Hand-In-Hand: Well-Rounded Education and Civic Engagement”




We owe it to every child in this country to provide them with access to music and the arts; world languages; physics, chemistry, and biology; physical education and health; coding and computer science; and social studies, geography, government and civics. These are not luxuries. They are essential for preparing students to thrive in the world they will experience beyond high school.


Today, I want to focus on the importance of civic education and what that might look like in schools and colleges.


When we think about the responsibilities of citizens, we typically think primarily about voting.


Voting is the cornerstone of freedom. The right to vote undergirds all our other rights. To not vote is to turn your back on your neighbors and your community and your country. 




However, as I would tell my students when I was teaching, voting, as important as it is, is only one responsibility of citizenship.


The strength of our democracy depends on all of us, as Americans ….


… understanding our history and the Constitution and how the government works, at every level…


… becoming informed and thoughtful about local, state, and national issues…


… getting involved in solving problems in our schools, communities, states, and nationally….


… recognizing that the solutions to the complex issues our nation faces today all require compromise….          


… being willing to think beyond our own needs and wants and to embrace our obligations to the greater good…


… finally, I would argue, that our democracy, our communities and our nation would be stronger if all of us volunteered on behalf of others.


None of this will occur automatically. As Americans, we celebrate our individualism and our differences. But, to remain a functioning society and democracy, we also have to recognize that we are dependent on society and society depends on us.


All of us—parents, elected officials, educators, journalists and everyone else—must set a good example for our children and for newcomers to this country and work to make this, in Lincoln’s words, a “more perfect union.”


But today I want to argue that our schools and colleges have a special responsibility to prepare their students to do so. 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.


And, right now, it is clear that our schools and colleges must do more to meet that goal.




So, today, I ask our nation’s schools and colleges to be bold and creative in educating for citizenship. Make preparing your students for their civic duties just as much a priority as preparing them to succeed in college and in their careers. 


And I ask educators to work from the broader definition of civic duty that I have described. I ask teachers and principals and superintendents to help your students learn to be problem solvers who can grapple with challenging issues, such as how to improve their schools, homelessness, air and water pollution, or the tensions between police and communities of color. 


It is also critical that these conversations not be partisan. Civic education and engagement is not a Democratic Party or a Republican Party issue. Solutions to problems can and should be rooted in different philosophies of government. We have to make sure classrooms welcome and celebrate these different perspectives.


I recognize that this could lead to uncomfortable conversations and that teachers will need support and training to foster these conversations in productive ways. 


Principals will need to be courageous and back their teachers up. Superintendents and school boards will need to make sure their communities understand what they are trying to accomplish.




Because, the reality is that many of the biggest issues, including tensions between police and communities of color, are not going to be settled solely by a decision by the president or Congress or even a bill passed by a state legislature.  


The Department of Justice can monitor policing and identify violations of civil rights and order changes in practices and policies to prevent those violations.


That’s a start. But what’s also needed are citizens who will work with others and vote strategically to demand….


…changes in police training to include bias, cultural competency and ways to defuse tense situations in police training…


…an end to racial profiling…


…an end to discriminatory practices by prosecutors and courts against poor people….


The same activism - beginning at the local level - can make a difference on the creation of jobs, better housing, improved mass transit and other issues.


But this won’t happen unless people have the knowledge, skills and inclination to get involved that can be learned in school. 




So, what are the elements of a robust and relevant civic education?


First, students need knowledge. They need to know the Constitution and the legislative process. They also need to understand history. Our students ought to be truly familiar with the primary sources that have shaped our nation’s history: with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; with Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech and Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail – to name just a few.


But it’s not enough to be able to quote from these documents. They need to know why they remain relevant today. They need to be able to put themselves into others’ shoes, and to appreciate the different perspectives that have shaped our nation’s history.


We should teach students that slavery is not just a scar on our national character erased by the Civil War. We should teach them to acknowledge and wrestle with the ways that ugly legacy continues to shape our country and helps explain the treatment of people of color in America to this day.


The way the new National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall tells this story is both powerful and unforgettable. When I visited, I was filled with horror as I read the bill of sale for a 16-year-old girl named Polly, as I gazed upon a statue of Thomas Jefferson with the names of the human beings he owned inscribed on a nearby wall, and as I stood in front of what was once Emmett Till’s coffin. But that’s not the only story the Museum tells. It also tells the story of resistance and dignity in the face of oppression, from Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass to the Tuskegee Airmen. It is a wonderful new resource for the nation and for educators.


The story continues today. Students should 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.  And they should also understand and be able to explain with evidence why some people are offended by that decision or would choose a different way to express their views. 


Civics shouldn’t be an add-on. It can be made a part of every class, not just social studies and history but reading and writing; science and math. Studying climate change in science class can be broadened—and made more relevant—by asking students to find out whether their local government is prepared to respond. Math can be made more engaging by having students research the ratio of liquor stores and grocery stores to population in various neighborhoods—and then asking the mayor why that is the case.


Beyond knowledge, students need civic skills. They should be able to write persuasive letters to the editor or to the mayor or to a member of Congress and learn to speak at public meetings. 


In addition, they should have opportunities to “do” democracy.




By getting involved in real issues, students learn that it is not enough to just shout about their disappointments and criticize the ideas of others. They have to offer solutions. They have to work together to advocate for those solutions. They have to push to make sure the solutions are implemented. And they have to understand that change takes time.


I’m proud that we, as a nation, provide opportunities through AmeriCorps to support young people who want to spend a year or more giving back to a community in need.  We currently have 80,000 folks serving in this program, over half supporting our public schools, and we should have far, far more.




We also want our students to learn to look beyond their own interests to their enlightened self-interest in the common good.


Colleges also have an important role to play in preparing young people to fulfill their responsibilities as citizens.




The good news is that this kind of civic education–civic education that digs into challenging issues, and teaches knowledge, skills, and inclinations to serve, actually works. It changes students’ behavior as adults.


Research compiled by the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools shows that students who receive effective civic education are:


• More likely to vote and discuss politics at home.

• Four times more likely to volunteer and work on community issues

• More confident in their ability to speak publicly and communicate with elected officials.


As a bonus, this type of civic learning can actually prepare students for demanding careers in a globally competitive labor market because they will learn to…think critically, write clearly and persuasively, and work with diverse groups of people. …


But 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.


Thank you.