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Rick Hess Straight Up: Making Civics Count

Thursday, November 15th, 2012

In this morning’s edition of “Rick Hess Straight Up” over at Education Week, AEI scholar Rick Hess hopes that the momentum from the election will focus much needed attention on civic education in our nation. “Students,” Hess notes, “are remarkably unprepared for citizenship.”

Hess highlights our new volume on civic education, Making Civics Count, recently released by Harvard Education Press and edited by Hess, David Campbell (Notre Dame), and Meira Levinson (Harvard Graduate School of Education). (Click here to learn more about the book and the conference we hosted with its contributors last October.)

Hess notes:

In the words of contributor Michael Johanek, “If 50 percent of a school district’s graduates could not read, we’d fire the superintendent. Yet regularly less than half our graduates vote, a minimal barometer of civic performance.” If democratic participation is a marker of successful citizenship education, we’re falling way short. Contributor Richard Nieme points out that on the 2006 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in civics, about a third of students scored below basic at every grade. The results demonstrate to Brookings Institution scholar William Galston “near-total civic ignorance.” […]

Anecdotally, there’s evidence that at least some charter schools succeed in fostering a strong civic ethos. New York’s Democracy Prep provides citizen-scholars with a rigorous civics curriculum, frequent assessments, inspiring hands-on activities, and mock elections every year. Mike Feinberg, co-founder of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) schools, describes the emphasis on civic education within the KIPP curriculum. […] Charters are similarly unencumbered in designing schedules that include a service component. Holding everything else constant, about 10 percent of students in the DC Public Schools participate in community service once a week or more, compared to over 40 percent of DC charter students. All that said, contributor (and co-editor) David Campbell points out that only a rigorous, data-driven evaluation can tell us the actual effects on what students know and do, as well as whether these practices are replicable.

When folks of a certain age think of civics, they can be tempted to bust out in spontaneous renditions of “I’m Just a Bill.” Contributor Anna Saavedra points out that civics can be a helluva lot more interesting than even the best of the old Schoolhouse Rock cartoons. She points to smart instruction that taps current events, simulations, mock elections, student government, and service learning. Unfortunately, much civic education today is tedious and boring. The NAEP reports that, of eighth grade civics teachers, thirty percent lecture almost every day and another 53 percent lecture at least once a week. Just 11 percent of students say civics curricula emphasize problems facing the nation today or injustice in the American system. Contributors Joseph Kahne and his colleagues note that, with more than two-thirds of 18-29 year olds accessing the news on the Internet and 75 percent of American youth using Facebook, civic and political life is increasingly moving online. This calls for educators to start doing more to help students learn to participate in new ways. Given that less than half of teachers rate their civics professional development as useful, that may be a good place to start.

Read all of Hess’s column at his blog, and order your copy of Making Civics Count here. We agree with Hess’s closing line:  “Whether you’re passionate about civic education or tend to regard these issues as a distraction from boosting reading scores and ‘closing achievement gaps,’ I think you’ll find the contributions here well worth your while.”