Thursday, January 22, 2015

The politics of high school civics -- Jan. 22, 2015 column


Everybody loves seeing how dumb other people are, so this Tweet naturally rocketed around the Twitterverse:  

“The NFL been around longer than our government. We’ve had 48 Super Bowls and only 44 presidents. I didn’t know that.”

It would be funny except that, as somebody commented on Facebook, “Her vote counts the same as yours.”  

Too often our fellow Americans display breathtaking ignorance about U.S. history or government. In a nationwide survey last year, only 36 percent of adults could name all three branches of government, the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania reported. Worse, 35 percent could not name even one branch.

Most adults also didn’t know which party controlled the U.S. House or Senate, the survey found.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress has been reporting for years that only a few students know civics. Among 4th graders, only 27 percent tested at or above the proficient level in civics, according to the 2010 assessment, the most recent. Only 22 percent of 8th graders and 24 percent of 12th graders tested as proficient.

The poor performance shouldn’t come as a surprise. Many schools have dropped civics as a separate class, combining it with American history. The good news is we’re seeing a proliferation of efforts to reinvigorate civic education. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has devoted her retirement to the cause, and many nonprofits have sprung up to tackle the problem.

Last September, 26 nonpartisan groups – including the Annenberg center, Library of Congress, National Archives and Mount Vernon -- launched the Civics Renewal Network. The online resource offers high-quality, no-cost instructional materials for various grades.

Some states, though, are pinning their hopes on a dubious method to foster greater civic knowledge: the U.S. citizenship test.

Arizona just became the first state to require that students pass the citizenship test before graduating from high school. The naturalization test is an oral exam in which a candidate for citizenship is asked up to 10 questions from a list of 100 and must answer six correctly in the interview. 

Members of the Class of 2017 in Arizona will need to get 60 of 100 questions correct. Similar measures are moving through the legislatures in North Dakota, Utah and Missouri.

A few other states require some type of history or civics test for high school graduation. The U.S. citizenship test is the focus of the Civics Education Initiative, a project of the Joe Foss Institute, a nonprofit based in Scottsdale, Ariz., whose motto is “Patriotism Matters.”

The institute’s goal is to have every state pass a law requiring the citizenship exam for high school graduation by Sept. 17, 2017, the 230th anniversary of signing of the Constitution. It says about 15 other states are currently considering the idea.

For legislators, adopting the citizenship test is a bipartisan way to appear to be educating students while sidestepping the political controversies that often surround civics education.   

“Every classroom discussion, textbook adoption, or comment by a teacher has become a potential flashpoint,” Peter Levine and Scott Wagner wrote in a Jan. 15 op-ed in The Hill newspaper. “Even the word `democracy’ is politically divisive in a way that was not true in the 1980s,” they wrote.

Levine is director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, which formed the Commission on Youth Voting and Civic Knowledge.

The commission concluded in a major study in 2013, “We find that testing civics has no positive impact, but that could be because the tests are not well designed, teachers are not well prepared and supported to teach the material, or the curriculum is misaligned with the tests.”

The commission recommended that new tests be designed that are aligned with curriculum, so that students gain the knowledge and skills necessary for active citizenship. 

Before jumping on the citizenship test bandwagon, states should consider a broader approach to civics, one that stresses understanding over rote learning.

Otherwise, we may simply churn out more graduates who have passed a test but remain dumb. Remember, their votes count the same as yours.   

©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


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