AMERICAN CIVICS EDUCATION
Ask someone disappointed by the extreme political and social polarization in America today, and it's possible that you'll get a rant about how Civics isn't being taught in our schools anymore.
Fewer hours are now required in traditional Civics subjects -- government, history, law, economics, and geography -- than in the past. Nearly 80% of states require only one semester of Civics classes (beyond History) for a student to graduate from high school.
Pundits on both the left and the right have their own ideas on how to teach Civics. What they do agree on, however, is that Civics education as it currently exists in the US is inadequate...so bad in fact that a lawsuit was filed in Rhode Island claiming that the Civics education was so poor it violated students' constitutional rights.
As usual, however, the claims about the poor quality of Civics education is only part of the story. Schools are once again being called on to solve the problems created by outside forces such as the elimination of the "fairness doctrine" the rise of polarized news sources, the lack of a common set of facts, and the poisonous impact of money in American politics. Civics education will not be able to counteract Fox News and the passage of Citizens United which has contributed to the overt influence of partisan billionaires on American politics each year.
So why have schools cut back on the amount of time that Civics education is taught in today's public schools? One reason is the obsession with testing in the US. We are singularly focused on testing Reading and Math and often other subjects like Civics and Science are given short shrift in the curriculum. No Child Left Behind left some subjects behind.
Civics education certainly does need to be taught -- and is being taught -- in the US, but the public schools can't solve the divisiveness of political speech, the influx of dark money into politics, or the lack of a common set of facts. Teachers are understandably fearful of being accused of partisanship, but school boards and state legislatures are reflective of the political divide. Schools, tasked with raising the next generation of informed citizens, are caught in the middle.
Can Civics education be improved? Of course, but more will be required to solve the problem of a polarized electorate.
CIVICS EDUCATION AT AN ALL-TIME LOW
The State of Civics Education
It's the responsibility of schools to make sure that students engage in society as knowledgable citizens once they graduate.
Civic knowledge and public engagement is at an all-time low. A 2016 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that only 26 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government, which was a significant decline from previous years.1 Not surprisingly, public trust in government is at only 18 percent2 and voter participation has reached its lowest point since 1996.3 Without an understanding of the structure of government; rights and responsibilities; and methods of public engagement, civic literacy and voter apathy will continue to plague American democracy. Educators and schools have a unique opportunity and responsibility to ensure that young people become engaged and knowledgeable citizens.
While the 2016 election brought a renewed interest in engagement among youth,4 only 23 percent of eighth-graders performed at or above the proficient level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics exam, and achievement levels have virtually stagnated since 1998.5 In addition, the increased focus on math and reading in K-12 education—while critical to prepare all students for success—has pushed out civics and other important subjects.
MORE AND BETTER CIVICS EDUCATION ISN'T THE ANSWER
Improved civics education won't eliminate misinformation.
Why more (and better) civics education can’t really save us
Misinformation is at its highest level in the history of polling. On crucial issue after crucial issue, staggering numbers of Americans have views of reality that are wildly at odds with the facts.
In the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion, a majority of Americans falsely believed that Iraqis helped carry out the 9/11 attacks. During debate on the 2010 Affordable Care Act, a third of our citizens falsely believed that the legislation included “death panels” — government-appointed committees with the power to deny medical treatment to elderly patients. Millions of Americans today falsely believe that illegal immigration and free trade are the leading cause of factory job loss. More than 80 percent of job loss is attributable to automation — the replacement of workers by machines.
And then there’s climate change. People elsewhere in the world accept the scientific consensus that the climate is changing and that it’s due to human activity. Not so in America. Polls indicate that large numbers deny that it’s happening or attribute it to sunspots and other natural causes.
Misinformation has no boundaries. It infects Republicans and Democrats, men and women, young and old. But it’s more prevalent among some groups than others. Younger adults tend to be more misinformed than older adults and have more difficulty distinguishing between fact and fake.
Teaching More Civics Will Not Save Us from Trump
...although I wholeheartedly support Haass’ suggestion that students need civics, I wonder what kind of civics?
Haass says children in the United States are not being taught civics. But what if he has it wrong? What if it is not the absence of civics that is the problem, but its standard, default iteration? Too often, our curriculum teaches the Constitution as if it is a holy text (with the framers its prophets). It asks students to memorize what is legal more often than it asks them to grapple with what is just, and privileges the mechanics of political institutions over the social movements that can transform them. It is a curriculum that tells students the meaning of citizenship rather than inviting them to be authors of its ongoing definition and redefinition. Not surprisingly, this is a civics education that can be standardized and tested, adding yet more millions into the corporate textbook and testing industries. So I enthusiastically endorse more civics, but it cannot be more of the same.
MORE AND BETTER CIVICS EDUCATION IS THE ANSWER
Have schools abandoned their mission of preparing an informed citizenry and now just focus on graduating workers?
Why Teaching Civics in America’s Classrooms Must Be a Trump-Era Priority: The testing craze and
But all that changed most notably in the 1980s, when, in addition to earlier cuts in civic studies, policymakers began shifting the focus from social studies toward easily testable subjects like math and reading. As Stanford University’s David F. Labaree argued in his intellectual history of American education, Someone Has to Fail, schools abandoned their civic mission in favor of preparing a new generation of skilled workers. The No Child Left Behind Act later accelerated this push, drawing on the work of a Reagan-era commission that postulated (with scant evidence) that test scores in reading and math would predict college and workplace performance.
Teaching Civics Has Never Mattered More
Civics is not just a class. It is a topic woven through many classes from elementary through high school grades. The teachers are not "civics" teachers but classroom teachers with their main focus on many subjects. In total, civics instructs students about how our government works, which can help put today’s events in context. But civics does a lot more. Intentional instruction about civics can help students become engaged, responsible citizens. These classes can help students develop skills to make decisions based on facts and issues rather than personalities and attacks. It's not just about "teaching civics" — it's about conveying civic values: concern for the rights and welfare of others, fairness, and a sense of public duty. It matters for our democracy that everyone understands how to participate and make a difference.
HOW TO IMPROVE CIVICS EDUCATION
Critical thinking is...critical.
Strengthening Democracy With a Modern Civics Education
To ensure students are prepared to be active citizens in the digital age, schools and policymakers need to help them cultivate media and news literacy with robust curricula. The Center for Media Literacy defines media literacy as the “ability to access, analyze, evaluate and create media in a variety of forms.” News literacy more specifically “focuses on growing engagement with the news, awareness of current events, and a deeper knowledge of the role of journalists.” Both news and media literacy are pertinent to students’ civics education today, as students may be inundated with unreliable information through social media and the internet, which harms their ability to effectively engage on key issues.
With the increased availability of information online, students must be extra savvy to determine a source’s reliability, but it’s a difficult task. Discernment is not just a student problem, however: A 2016 Pew Research Center survey found that around 51 percent of U.S. adults see “at least somewhat inaccurate” information online, and about 16 percent of U.S. adults admitted to inadvertently sharing false political news online.
10 Core Insights on Civics Education, and How to Improve it
2. States are introducing record numbers of civics education bills and initiatives, some inspired by pioneering work in Florida, Massachusetts, and Illinois.
3. Much of students' early exposure to civics is in history class, and arguments about history content are often really arguments about civic values. A better approach to traditional textbook narratives might be allowing students to draw conclusions for themselves after examining primary sources.
4. Teenagers' civic engagement is rising, not falling. 18- and 19-year-olds voted at historic rates in the 2018 midterm elections, at 23 percent. In fact, in four states, 1 in 3 eligible teens voted.
For further reading...
National Survey Finds Just 1 in 3 Americans Would Pass Citizenship Test
Americans’ Knowledge of the Branches of Government Is Declining
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