Thursday, July 19th, 2012
Writing earlier this week in the Christian Science Monitor, Scott Warren (Generation Citizen), Iris Chen (I Have a Dream Foundation), and Eric Schwarz (Citizen Schools) argue that neither President Obama nor presidential candidate Mitt Romney are focusing enough attention on the educational problem that poses the greatest threat to American democracy: the decline of civic education in our schools.
The public school system, the authors remind, was established to create engaged and informed citizens. In recent years, though, this mission has largely been sidelined as educators and policymakers focus their attention on education reform and high-stakes testing, usually in the areas of math and reading:
Until the 1960s, high school students commonly took three years of civics. Today, they may take one semester, if that. Unsurprisingly, only 28 percent of 12th graders scored proficient or advanced on the National Assessment for Educational Progress’s civics exam, lower than any subject except history. This civics gap has carried through to the overall electorate: Only one-third of Americans can name all three branches of government; another third cannot name any. The United States ranks 120th out of 169 democracies in voter turnout, well into the bottom third.
Individually, these outcomes are startling. Collectively, they indicate a real threat to what Alexis de Tocqueville called the “great American experiment” of democracy. We cannot have “government by the people” if the people do not know how to govern.
But students do not magically transform into engaged and informed citizens on their 18th birthdays. And they almost certainly will not if schools do not play a role in teaching them about active citizenship.
In critical content areas, such as English, science, and math, schools intentionally teach and develop important skills through consistent practice throughout students’ educational careers. This must also occur with civics: We must provide students an opportunity to learn, reflect on, and “do” citizenship, through discussion, student government and newspapers, and by taking real action on issues they face in their own communities.
The authors go on to suggest some changes to the way schools currently teach civics–changes such as incorporating civics skills into math or language arts classes or extending the school day to provide more opportunity for hands-on civic learning–and urge Obama and Romney to talk more about the importance of civics:
Both candidates’ own life stories provide a platform for a renewed emphasis on civics. Romney gave up multimillion-dollar earnings as head of Bain Capital to enter (much less lucrative) public service as governor of Massachusetts. Obama left an initial job at a consulting firm after graduating from Columbia to take a (low-paying) job as a community organizer in Chicago.
Though their educations equipped both for financial success, they were also taught to value something higher than mere wealth. They also both can infuse citizen engagement back into our national education debate. If we truly want to discuss what’s best for our country’s future, we must also discuss how to educate today’s young people to become informed, engaged, and effective citizens. Our great American experiment demands nothing less.
Read the whole thing here. Related reading: High Schools, Civics, and Citizenship: What Social Studies Teachers Think and Do.