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What would a national civics standard look like?

Thursday, April 11th, 2013

Robert PondiscioIn The Atlantic, Robert Pondiscio, executive director of CitizenshipFirst, suggests that a ground-floor civics standard that must be met by all graduating students from high school is in order—and that the US Citizenship Test is just the place to start. Writing shortly after the release of his white paper for the Pioneer Institute (coauthored with Gilbert T. Sewall and Sandra Stotsky)—“Shortchanging the Future: The Crisis of History and Civics in American Schools”—Pondiscio laments the crisis in civic education and civic knowledge today, but thinks that setting a modest standard like the Citizenship Test would be more helpful than establishing more high-stakes testing or overhauling state standards.

He continues:

The [Citizenship Test] is fairly simple and straightforward—the kind of thing every schoolboy knew when schoolboys used to know things: What are checks and balances? Name a freedom guaranteed in the First Amendment. What did Susan B. Anthony or Martin Luther King, Jr. do? There are 100 questions on the test. Would-be citizens are asked ten; answer six correctly and you pass.

Small beer? Without a doubt. Acquiring the basic knowledge of civics and history needed to pass the test can be done with a few hours of concerted study. So why recommend this as a final exam for public education?

One reason is that our national store of common knowledge has all but disappeared. We increasingly live inside our own information, entertainment, and cultural bubbles. For a nation that is united not by ties of blood and soil, but by shared ideals, this is a serious problem. At a conference on civic education at Harvard Law School last week, former Supreme Court Justice David Souter described the U.S. Constitution as a value system. The loss of history and our civic ignorance, he noted is “a defeat of that value system.” A “disuniting tendency is built into the very fabric of the U.S.,” he noted. Our shared history and civic ideals are the forces that keep us from flying apart. We lose them at our peril.

A second reason is that American education simply needs a proof point: a clear demonstration that we educators can set a common goal, however modest, and actually get it done. The U.S. Citizenship Test is a worthy bid. A study by Xavier University showed that 97.5 percent of naturalized citizens passed the citizenship test in 2010. At present only two of three Americans can clear this very low bar, and presumably even fewer students. If nearly every naturalized citizen can master these few basic facts of history and civics — and we insist by law that they do so — surely it is not asking too much for native-born citizens to do the same.

Getting this done, and doing so quickly, would go a long way toward restoring some faith in our schools and reining in some of the purely aspirational goals of our big thinkers in education. Remember, it is still the law of the land under No Child Left Behind that every child in America will be reading on grade level eight months from now, a goal no ordinary American has ever taken seriously. Arne Duncan, our earnest Education Secretary, likes to describe the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top program as “education reform’s moon shot.” Yes, let’s have a moon shot. But let’s also, with this nation-wide citizenship test, show we can safely walk everyone across the street to the launching pad.

Read the whole thing at The Atlantic. And for more on the decline of history and civic education in American schools, check out the Pioneer Institute’s report “Shortchanging the Future: The Crisis of History and Civics in American Schools.”