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To increase knowledge of civics, try teaching civics

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

Responding to the new study by the Educational Testing Service, “Fault Lines in Our Democracy: Civic Knowledge, Voting Behavior, and Civic Engagement in the United States” (which we covered here), the Hudson Institute’s Bruce Cole has an op-ed in the Washington Examiner that takes issue with the report’s suggested corrective measures to increase students’ civic knowledge and levels of civic engagement. Cole, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, writes:

The ETS report proposes a number of ways to increase voting and other civic engagement. Remedies include easier access to voting, strengthening confidence in government (tell that to the General Services Administration), more exposure to civic knowledge and working to close education achievement gaps. There’s even a suggestion that 18-year-olds be required to register to vote, although fortunately no suggestion that we follow Australia in making voting compulsory.

But civic activity is not the same as knowledge of civics, and the ETS bromides don’t address the problem of why students–the future voters–aren’t learning civics. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, the Department of Education’s national report card, notes that fourth-, eighth-, and 12th-grade students lack even an elementary grasp of how our government works. Only a quarter of all students qualified as proficient in knowledge about civics.

This alarming knowledge deficit occurs because many civics classes are content-light, politically correct and easily fall prey to educational fads. They’re heavy on sociology, community service, service learning, political activity and civic engagement, but all too often light on facts and concepts. Unless you first equip students with a good grasp of American government and its history, asking them to “engage” in civic activity is like assigning them a report without a subject.


So instead of the ETS’ airy call for a National Commission on Civic Engagement–we’ve already got one, it’s called the National Conference on Citizenship–or the promotion of bumper-sticker slogans like “community service and leadership development,” how about going back to fundamentals?

Teach students how our government works and why. That will improve civic education. If this happens, maybe more than 7 percent of eighth graders will be able to name the three branches of government.

As they say, read the whole thing.