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Civics Standards Seen 'Formulating the Future'

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Washington

More than two centuries after the Founding Fathers debated the merits of creating a strong central government, scholars and educators are traversing some of the same territory as they develop voluntary civics standards for the nation's schools.

At a meeting here last month, participants strived to balance states' rights and federal prerogative, as well as define what students should know and be able to do in the study of citizenship and government in such domains as U.S. foreign policy, the role of the media in shaping policy and public opinion, and fostering a common set of civic values.

The standards-setting work is more than an intellectual exercise, as an observer from Eastern Europe noted. "In this work, you now formulate your future,'' said Jaroslav Kalous, the director of the Comenius Center for Education and Democracy at Charles University in the Czech Republic.

A Fall Debut

Civics is one of seven subjects in which federally financed projects to set voluntary national standards are under way or, in the case of the arts, recently completed.

The Center for Civic Education, the Calabasas, Calif.-based group heading the civics project, plans to reveal the completed standards in October.

At this stage in the process, the standards that will apply to students in grades 9-12 are nearing completion, while those for grades K-4 and 5-8 are being revised.

Reviewers of the draft standards for elementary and middle school students found that many were too difficult for children of that age, said Charles N. Quigley, the executive director of the center.

The emerging standards reflect a mixture of the traditional content of civics and government classes with subject matter that in the past has been ignored, glossed over, or consigned to other disciplines.

Under the draft standards, students will be expected to know about such governmental institutions as Congress, the Supreme Court, and the executive agencies--traditional civics-course fare.

But students also will be expected to know about the concept of "the public agenda''--why and how an issue moves to the front burner at a specific time.

The draft standards also devote an entire section to the relationship of U.S. politics and government to world affairs.

And state and local government and politics, which experts said are often neglected in civics courses, also receive a greater share of attention than is usual.

Political participation is also addressed, but students will be expected to learn about more than the acts of voting and paying taxes. They will be expected to know about the concept of civic disposition and the preservation and improvement of democracy.

During the two-day meeting here, the center heard from both its advisory panel of scholars and educators and its review committee, made up of constituency groups such as the American Bar Association and the Internal Revenue Service.

A Decent Society

The initial debate among scholars and educators centered on the tone set at the onset of the standards: "In the United States today, there is widespread misunderstanding of government, a negative attitude towards politics, and a failure to appreciate the importance of civic life,'' states the first paragraph in the first section of the standards draft.

Some panel members questioned whether the characterization was too bleak.

Civic life, in many instances, "is still very robust,'' argued Milton D. Morris, the vice president for research at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank.

Others suggested that cynicism or pessimism may plague the American public.

"Civic life has just a lower priority for lots of reasons,'' said Alvin Bell, a high school teacher from Ohio. "It would be nice if it was active pessimism. It's not even that.''

In part, the debate reflected what is at the heart of the movement to revitalize civics: educating students about the linkages between civics and government and their own lives and inculcating successive generations of students with a common set of civic values.

As William A. Galston, a deputy assistant for domestic policy to President Clinton, remarked during the session: "In order to have a decent society, most people need to do the right thing most of the time because they know it is right.''

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