By Erin McNeill

There’s a parable about filling a jar with rocks, pebbles and sand. If you fill the jar with the sand and pebbles first, you can’t get any rocks in. So you put the rocks in first, then the pebbles, then the sand goes in and fills in all the remaining space.

Now think of public education as the jar, and ask, “What is the highest purpose of public education of all children in the US?”

What goes in the jar first?

At one time, public education was acknowledged as the foundation of citizenship in a democracy — to maintain government by the people, in which the people hold the government accountable. What could be more important? Over time, somehow, “college and career readiness” became the goal of public education. Who decided that is the highest and best use of our educational system? The federal government, in the form of the US Department of Education, has led the way.

Tuesday, on the day a new Secretary of Education was confirmed, I accessed the department’s website and noted that the mission of the Department of Education is “to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness.” The federal government oversees universal educational “achievement” in the form of assessments measuring a very limited set of skills.

It’s become alarmingly clear that we’ve neglected an education that underpins civic engagement. Civics is dropping out of the curriculum across the country in favor of training for jobs. Students don’t know how our government works, let alone why we want it to work that way. And the heart of civics education is literacy. Today, in the 21st century, when so much of our information comes in visual form, and information systems are created on a base of algorithms using big data that is collected via media, literacy is synonymous with media literacy.

As noted by the Consortium for Media Literacy, “Through media literacy, youth and adults alike begin to understand their relationship with media, which is the conduit through which we engage with society at large.”

But when we talk to policymakers about media literacy, often what we hear is, “The schools are overburdened already. What do you want to take out so you can fit in this (ostensibly) extra thing?” In other words, they say they can’t even fit another pebble. But civics and media literacy are the rocks. They should go in first.

The Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools report, Guardian of Democracy, is an urgent call for action to restore the historic civic mission of our nation’s schools. “Those who blame our democratic shortfalls on a media failing its responsibilities, the proliferation of money in politics, and politicians serving narrow interests rather than the common good are not wrong — all these are very real threats to American democracy. But all three of these threats, and others, would be ameliorated by a more knowledgeable and engaged citizenry.”

And the way to a more knowledgeable and engaged citizenry is literacy — that is, media literacy.

Locally, many districts and teachers get this. Mary Robb teaches Media Literacy and Democracy in Andover, Massachusetts. She says: “We justify our need for media literacy when teaching civics by pointing out the fact that we live in a media saturated society. Media influences almost every facet of our lives, including the choices we make as citizens. If we cannot navigate our way through the bias and spin in media, particularly news and political media, we cannot hope to be well-informed citizens who can make well-reasoned political decisions.”

Here’s how media literacy contributes to civics education:

• Strengthens students’ information access, analysis and communications skills

• Builds understanding of media systems, how media messages are constructed and to what end.

• Informs students about how the press functions in a democracy, and why it matters that citizens gain reliable information and exposure to diverse opinions.

• Motivates students to seek out diverse opinions and quality sources.

• Helps students recognize the need to participate in policy decision-making at all levels — community, state, national.

The good news is this: Because of a priority on local control, the effort to grow robust public schools that put the rocks in first — civics informed by comprehensive media literacy — takes place at the state level. At Media Literacy Now, we are bringing that fight to the doorsteps of the statehouses.

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