<< The Body Politic

The importance of civics education

Friday, November 30th, 2012

The American School Board Journal has an article in its current issue about the importance of civic education, even at a time when social studies and civics classes are facing challenges in the era of “college and career” readiness. As Ted McConnell, executive director for the Civic Missions of Schools, reminds, education should be “about preparing students for college, career–and citizenship.”

Lawrence Hardy, the author of the article, writes:

When Chris McGrew was social studies coordinator for the Indiana Department of Education, there was something he called the Fab Four of curriculum: science, math, language arts, and, yes, social studies.

“By the time I left,” McGrew says, “it had sort of become the Fab Three.”

At the same time, membership in the state’s leading social studies professional group dropped from about 500 members to fewer than 100. In the face of ever-increasing calls for more math and language arts time, more testing, and less interest in a diverse curriculum, teachers finally “gave up” fighting for the kind of courses that could improve civic literacy, McGrew says.

“It felt like I was presiding over the death of social studies in Indiana,” he says. “It was really frustrating.”

A number of nationwide groups are trying to reverse that trend. Among the most well known is iCivics, founded by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor more than 10 years ago. It offers online activities for students in subjects like citizenship, the Bill of Rights, foreign policy, and national defense.

Why focus on citizenship? For one thing, McConnell says, if you look at your state or district documents that have anything to do with the mission of your schools, it’s a good bet they say something about preparing students to be active and knowledgeable citizens. Guardians of Democracy, a 2011 report by the Civic Mission of Schools, concludes that “investing in civic learning strengthens American democracy.”

And later on in the article, two of the contributors to our recent volume, Making Civics Count, Diana Hess and Peter Levine, are highlighted:

[I]t’s understandable why some teachers (with the tacit backing of the principal, superintendent, and school board) would stick to by-the-book pedagogy for teaching civics and the practice of civic activity in contemporary society: politics.

“We kind of depoliticize knowledge about politics,” says Diana Hess, a senior vice president of the Spencer Foundation and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of curriculum and instruction.

And that’s a big mistake, Hess says. It makes civics boring and divorces it from the sometimes messy—but far more interesting and relevant — business of politics. Instead, says the author of Controversy in the Classroom: The Democratic Power of Discussion, teachers should do just the opposite: Engage students in the compelling political controversies of the day. […]

Other experts say that, while our level of young people’s civic knowledge is not stellar, little evidence shows it has declined over the years. The term “crisis implies a decline,” writes Peter Levine, a professor of citizenship and public affairs at Tufts University, in the soon-to-be published book Making Civics Count, “but the mean NAEP scores at eighth- and 12th grade stayed flat, and the fourth-grade scores have risen.”

Moreover, argues Levine, who also is director of CIRCLE (Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement), no one is graded on the civics test so students aren’t necessarily motivated to do their best. “If, as former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers said, no one in the history of the world has ever washed a rental car,” Levine writes, “then no one has ever studied for the NAEP or revised an answer.”

That doesn’t mean the nation shouldn’t invest more time and effort into civic education. It certainly should, Levine says. And the socioeconomic gaps in civic participation are indeed troubling. “A first serious problem is inequity of both opportunities and outcomes,” Levine says, with economically advantaged students dominating civic opportunities in schools with mixed demographics.

As many scholars have noted, Americans are not unified by a shared religion, ethnicity, or “homeland.” Rather, we are connected by an idea, something that is both the foundation of our strength and the source of our greatest challenge. By midcentury, we will be a majority minority nation, with even less uniting us on the outside. But our civic ethos runs deeper than that.

“The only thing that really makes us “us” — e pluribus unum — is an understanding of and allegiance to a particular form of government,” [Sheila] Kennedy[, a professor of government at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis] says.

Read more about “The Importance of Civics Education” at the American School Board Journal–and don’t forget to get your own copy of Making Civics Count!