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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Let's Bring Civic Education to the Front Burner

The importance of education cannot be overstated. Without a good education, one cannot get a good job, earn a good living, and provide for oneself and one's family. Education is the key to individual prosperity.

And education is important to our economy. We have been hearing a lot recently about concerns that our education system is falling behind, particularly in math and science, hindering our competitiveness in the global market. The message is clear: If we don't improve our educational system, our economy will fall apart (again).

But we have been hearing a lot less about the civic mission of our schools -- and the importance of education for our democracy. Yet as Rick Hess pointed out a few weeks ago:

From the dawn of the Western tradition, dating back to Plato, Aristotle, and their contemporaries, education has been regarded as essential to the formation of good citizens and the cultivation of a proper attachment to the state. For America's founders such as Benjamin Rush, Noah Webster, and Thomas Jefferson, one of the main functions of schools was producing democratic citizens.

I am reminded of our civic mission as the nation approaches a midterm election in the midst of an economic crisis. Voters will soon make difficult decisions on a number of issues that will shape at least the next two years in American politics.

The Statistics

But I have concerns about the state of civics education in America. The National Assessment of Student Progress (NAEP) test in civics found that about two out of every three students at grades 4 (73 percent), 8 (70 percent) and 12 (66 percent) have at least a basic knowledge of civics. But when you look at proficiency, the situation seems grim: just about 24 percent of students are considered proficient (24 percent of fourth graders, 22 percent of eighth graders, and 27 percent of twelfth graders). These students will become voters who have to make important decisions every election -- but only about 24 percent have a proficient understanding of civics? It's a bit scary.

Combine NAEP data with a recent American Enterprise Institute (AEI) study on what social studies teachers think and do. Findings I found particularly interesting: 83 percent of these teachers say it is absolutely essential for high schools to teach students "to identify the protections guaranteed by the Bill of Rights." Just 64 percent deem it absolutely essential for high schools to teach students "to understand such concepts as federalism, separation of powers, and checks and balances." And consider how that plays out in student knowledge -- NAEP found that only 5 percent of twelfth graders could explain checks on the president's power.

This lack of civics knowledge could have dire consequences. Our nation is designed for the participation of the people. If our citizens don't understand how it works, how can we make the right decisions? We have to do better in teaching our children about our nation and its government.

In the Classroom

While great civics education is not as systemic as it should be, there are great teachers all over the country doing innovative work to ensure students will be able to fulfill their civic duties. Consider, for example, Montana's 2009 Teacher of the Year, Sally Broughton. Her students gain a thorough knowledge of how the government works by identifying a problem that can be solved by public policy and then solving it.

These aren't "theoretical" projects. Her students speak to policymakers, and they improve life in their school and community. The results of their work include new public restrooms downtown and a school-wide bicycle helmet policy. Then there is my personal favorite. Living in prime earthquake country, her students investigated the ways a nearby dam could fail. They met with county officials to discuss ways to solve the problem and presented a final plan to the county commissioners. The county got a state grant, with students testifying at the state hearing, to initiate some of the changes the students had suggested. And the county later got a grant from Homeland Security to implement all the measures students had recommended, including an early warning system, a well-publicized evacuation route, and a reverse 911.

Through such activities, I am sure Sally Broughton's students learned how their government works. And I am sure that there are many others like her. Hopefully one day all children will have such excellent, project-based learning civics education.

Without imparting on our students a sense of their civic duties, and the knowledge required to carry them out, I worry that all our education reform efforts will be for naught. Our country cannot thrive if its citizens do not know how to maintain it.

Comments (24)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Mrs. J's picture
Mrs. J
Special Educator, English Language Development, Elementary, Pre0-school T.

Beth, no need to apologize. I missed the part about self-regulation with parents that you posted earlier. I thought Republic meant that the states had jurisdiction in each state. So, I do think that is different that plural votes (democracy.) My fifth grade students loved watching the news and the debates and having discourse with their parents AND
grandparents. I have to admit, not all of them did this. However, the more some talked about politics in class, the more others went home and started discussions. This will be their country soon. I want them to be ready. We will be retired and who knows if we will have a retirement income.

lapss321's picture

I've proposed a high school diploma earned by the student constructing their own schedules where each of the four areas account for at least 15% of their four-year plan and no more than 35% of it: Citizenship in a Democracy; China cell phone wholesale Preparation for 4-year baccalaureate; Career + Technical Education; Education of the Creative.

George Cassutto's picture
George Cassutto
8th Grade Civics

Teaching Civics to students of all ages can be a challenge, and failure to prepare our Civics and Social Studies teachers to do the job may explain, in part, our students' lackluster performance in this area. Many teachers in the field are provisionally licensed or pulled from other curricula, or they are coaches placed in the Social Studies classroom. That is why I wrote a set of lesson plans entitled Civics, developed for the overworked or undertrained Civics teacher. Born from the free lessons on my website at http://www.cyberlearning-world.com, Civics contains full lessons, a student and teacher workbook and PowerPoint presentations that gives the out-of-field teacher the basis for a successful school year and the student what they need to know to be successful on standardized tests in their state. Visit http://www.cyberlearning-world.com to learn more.

IGG11's picture

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Benito Franqui's picture
Benito Franqui
Retired Aerospace Engineer

[quote]Scripted teaching has no place in a democratic society.[/quote]
I completely agree. Unfortunately, mankind's attempts to establish truly democratic societies have not met with much lasting success so far.

Perhaps the top priority of educators should be to find out why this is so, and what can be done about it. Even though my only official teaching experience consists of 2 years as an engineering instructor, over the years I have collected some ideas which I would like to share ( assuming that somebody is still listening ) :-D

Benito Franqui's picture
Benito Franqui
Retired Aerospace Engineer

My own conclusion is that human beings are, for the most part, uneducable. How else to explain why, in this day and age in which so much information about practically everything is so readily available, we keep making the same old dumb misteaks over and over? :-D

Jill Bass's picture
Jill Bass
Mikva Challenge

Sally Broughton and the many teachers out there currently tapping into youth expertise and engaging young people in authentic civic experiences deserve recognition. Groups like Earth Force, Youth on Board, Mikva Challenge, UCCP and General Citizen ebelieve that students learn civics best by "doing civics" and lead Action Civics programs where students participate in their communities and in our democracy. To learn more about these groups and the National Action Civics Collaborative, go to www.centerforactioncivics.org/national-action-civics-collaborative

Shelby_Young_'s picture

I found this highly interesting! I would love to have a discussion with you via email sometime because you bring up valid points that I would more about(:

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