Civic Education

Teachers are the core of our union

Fresno Bee, March 5, 2016

  • Character and civic education is essential for our democracy
  • American schools are unique
  • Character education conference will be held Thursday

Caring and creative educators cultivate the next generation of democratic citizens. It is not easy to transform a child into a compassionate and engaged citizen. But no task is more important. The future of our democracy depends upon the work done in our schools.


Teachers are charged with providing instruction in academic subjects. Moral and civic education seems different. Morality appears to be both more pervasive and more personal than reading, writing or arithmetic. Perhaps we think that morality and citizenship will somehow take care of themselves.

Morality and civic engagement lie in the background of every other educational endeavor. Cheating and dishonesty make learning impossible. Poor citizenship undermines discipline. And bullies destroy trust in community.

I spoke about character and civic education with my colleague, Dr. Jacques Benninga, the director of Fresno State’s Bonner Center. Benninga is a nationally recognized leader in the field of character education. His vision of character and civic education is informed by decades of research and experience – and a great passion for American democracy.

Benninga maintains that American schools have a unique obligation to prepare children to become democratic citizens. He explains that schools have a “fundamental role to play in a constitutional, democratic republic.” He believes that teachers are guides and role models for civic life.

Benninga points to occasional headlines about bad teachers to make his point. We hold teachers to a higher standard. We are rightly appalled when a teacher makes a moral mistake or breaks the law.

The good news is that most educators live up to a high moral standard. Benninga is forthright in his praise for teachers. He says, “most teachers are outstanding individuals who are caring, fair and respect kids. They do the hard work of making schools wonderful.”

Benninga has a lot of data to support this generalization. Since 1988, he has been giving awards to schools that have outstanding programs in civic and character education. Benninga has evaluated hundreds of schools in Fresno, Kings, Madera and Tulare counties.

Exemplary schools receive an award at the Bonner Center’s annual character education conference for teaching credential students from Fresno State and Fresno Pacific University. This year the conference will be held Thursday at the Fresno Convention Center.

The conference will feature Renee Gomez, Fresno County’s teacher of the year, and Lisa Butts, Kings County’s teacher of the year. The keynote address will be given by Michelle Herczog, former president of the National Council for the Social Studies. Herczog’s speech is titled “Why We Must Prepare Students for College, Career, AND Civic Life.”


The need for such preparation is obvious. We are not born ready for college, prepared for a career or ready to participate in democratic society. Good education imparts academic and vocational skills and encourages moral development and citizenship.

Educators know what works in terms of character and civic education. Moral and character lessons should be infused within the curriculum, across subject matter. Students should be provided with opportunities for moral action – through service projects on campus and in the community.

Benninga points out that schools provide laboratories for democratic action, in the simple act of voting for student council. Benninga suggests that this is a unique aspect of American schools. It is hard to imagine, for example, democratically elected student councils in North Korea.

We take our democratic and morally engaged schools for granted. Americans have grown up practicing democracy at school. We learned honesty, integrity, fairness and care from our teachers and other significant adults. We practiced tolerance, respect, patience and hospitality in school. Our moral and democratic habits are the result of the diligent work of the previous generation of educators.

Through my collaborations with the Bonner Center, I have visited a number of exemplary schools. I have been impressed by caring teachers who are hard at work in the classroom. I’m hopeful that our democracy will flourish as a result of their labor.

If you know a teacher, thank them for their efforts. And ask them what they are doing to educate the next generation of citizens. You’ll be inspired to learn about the unheralded service that teachers perform daily in support of our democracy.

Read more here:

Teachers need, deserve support to do their jobs

Teachers need, deserve support to do their jobs

 By   Andrew Fiala

 Fresno Bee 2011-08-27

This summer, the Atlanta public schools were caught up in a cheating scandal that involved 44 schools and 178 educators. While the scope of the Atlanta scandal is appalling, such scandals are not new. Cheating scandals have plagued schools across the country for many years. If teachers cheat — either by coaching students or by erasing and correcting student answers — then we’ve got a serious problem. Even the most rigorous system of education is only as good as the educators who control it.

It is not difficult to imagine how the pressures of today’s high-stakes testing environment create a recipe for moral failure. In a low-performing school, in a context in which job security depends on easily manipulated standardized test scores, it is not surprising that some teachers are tempted to cheat.

This is no excuse for cheating. And we should establish safeguards to prevent cheating. But we also need to consider cheating as a symptom of an environment that is not conducive to moral development. If we expect teachers to teach better, we must change these conditions so that teachers can thrive.

I discussed these issues recently with Jack Benninga, the director of the Bonner Center for Character Education at Fresno State. According to Benninga, the key to moral schools is a safe, nurturing environment. Indeed, he argued that there is a connection between a supportive moral environment and academic achievement. Students learn better when they are not worried about being bullied or assaulted.

The same idea applies in the lives of teachers. Teachers teach better when they are provided appropriate support, mentoring and a sense of job security. Benninga pointed out that the moral and professional development of teachers depends upon a caring and humane environment. He explained, “A significant problem in schools today is that the environment is less focused on the development of children than on the skills needed to score well on high stakes tests. The U.S. Department of Education that mandated this approach in 2001 now realizes that its direction was a wrong turn for children and the adults who teach them.”

In a forthcoming article that he shared with me, Benninga and his co-authors conclude that classrooms today, “are tightly controlled, focused on students’ skill development, and are places where teachers are regularly monitored and publicly held accountable for student performance on high-stakes tests in just a few skill areas. This is not an atmosphere that encourages moral sensitivity or moral judgment.”

We do need to hold teachers accountable. Educational and behavioral standards do matter. The key to excellent performance in any field is to create conditions that make success possible. Cheating is more likely to happen when the stakes are high, when resources are scarce, and when caring and sustained mentoring relationships are replaced by a mechanical system of rewards and punishments.

This is true in sports, in science, in business and in academics — each of which have seen cheating scandals. Athletes use steroids and scientists fudge data. The individual athlete or scientist is obviously to blame. And so is the social environment that encourages winning at any cost or that demands “publish or perish.” We want athletes, scientists and teachers to strive for excellence. But competition leads to cheating when success is emphasized without proper training, mentoring and moral support.

Aristotle suggested that teachers deserve more honor than parents. Anyone can give birth to a child. But only an excellent teacher can prepare that child for a good life. And only an excellent society can train and nurture excellent teachers. Indeed, one test of a society’s well-being may be to consider how well it treats and trains its teachers.

Shrinking budgets and increasing class sizes do not help teachers; and they do not reflect well on our values as a society. Teachers do the essential job of nurturing the next generation. We need to create conditions that, in Benninga’s words, encourage educators to develop “moral sensitivity and moral judgment” as well as academic proficiencies.

Fortunately, there are many more excellent teachers than there are cheaters. Most teachers are sincerely dedicated to the academic achievement and moral development of the youngsters in their care. As the school year begins, let’s make sure that they have the support they need.