Panel Unveils Standards for Civics Classes
With the dramatic midterm-election results as a backdrop, the developers of academic standards for civics and government last week released their guidelines for upgrading what they call one of the most neglected areas of education.
At a ceremony in the U.S. Supreme Court building here, the Center for Civic Education formally presented a 179-page standards document that urges schools to begin teaching civics at the kindergarten level.
The voluntary national standards say children should not only learn about government institutions, but also about the shared values of Americans and the qualities of leadership.
Several members of a panel on hand to help present the benchmarks suggested that the new standards spelling out what students should know about civics and government have the potential to allay the kind of voter anger, frustration, and apathy that helped produce one of the most turbulent midterm elections in recent U.S. history.
"If we are to counter this anger, frustration, and apathy and counter civil illiteracy," Alvin R. Bell, a high school teacher, said, "we must give [students] the tools to resolve the answers of the day."
Clinton, Bush Officials Agree
A member of the Clinton White House and a former Bush Administration official both gave support to Mr. Bell's conviction.
If students have the benefit of a sound grounding in civics and government, the two said, then future generations of voters will have the knowledge about government and the power to bring about change that many now feel they are impotent to do.
"For a range of reasons, people have become more skeptical of the relationship between their will and judgment, on one hand, and the performance of political institutions on the other," said William Galston, a deputy assistant to President Clinton and a major adviser to the civics-standards project before signing on at the White House.
"I believe with all my heart that knowledge is power," Mr. Galston said, adding that a clear and straightforward civics education could affect voter outlook and election outcomes.
Like Hollywood, Washington is a dream factory whose political aspirants often promise more than they can deliver and ultimately anger voters, said Diane S. Ravitch, who as an assistant education secretary during the Bush Administration signed off on the federal funding for the standards project.
If students and adults study civics, however, they will better be able to set realistic expectations and will discover that they have to participate in the political process, said Ms. Ravitch, a senior research fellow at New York University. "Democracy is not a spectator sport."
National voluntary standards for civics and government is one of seven federally funded projects that developers hope states and districts will use as a resource to write their own curriculum frameworks.
The Pew Charitable Trusts was a major funder of the civics project.
Some states apparently have started using the national civics standards as a model for their own.
Colorado, in large measure, adopted the glossary, the quotes from historical figures, and ultimately the standards, said Barbara Miller, the director of the Colorado Civic/Legal Education Program. In essence, she said, the state standards committee cannibalized the document.
A Welcome Reception
The release of the civics standards was in contrast to the tumult enveloping the standards for U.S. and world history that were unveiled recently.
Although the final document has not been disseminated widely enough to discern whether the civics project will receive universal support, it has been praised by groups including the American Federation of Teachers, the National Association of Evangelicals, and the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The seemingly noncontroversial civics and government benchmarks are a welcome respite for proponents of the standards movement who fear that the rancor over history could jeopardize the curriculum-reform effort.
"You are indeed creating a 'world class' set of standards," said Robert Summerville of the Alabama education department, one of many reviewers who submitted complimentary testimony for the unveiling.
Conversely, the history standards have been brutally attacked, predominantly from conservatives who contend that they inequitably portray the white majority in the United States and the West as oppressors. (See Education Week, 11/02/94 and related story )
"Put the two documents side by side, and they seem like they come from two different countries," said Ms. Ravitch.
Civics and government also differs from most of the other standards projects in another important respect: The civics document excludes classroom activities.
That element of the history standards has been the major focus of attack.
In the case of class activities for the civics standards, "teachers said, 'We don't need them,'" according to Charles N. Quigley, the executive director of the Center for Civic Education.
He said the center also strived for a more streamlined product.
Reviewers of many of the standards drafts repeatedly have requested slimmer volumes, noting their concern for the teacher or curriculum specialist who may eventually have as many as 12 separate sets of content standards from which to work.
Ideals and Reality
The civics and government standards are built on five major themes: civic life, politics, and government; foundations of the American political system; how the Constitutional government embodies the purposes, values, and principles of American democracy; the United States' relationship to other nations and to world affairs; and the roles of the citizen in American democracy.
Many of the standards cover the traditional fare of high school civics or U.S. government courses.
For example, students might be asked to know about the three branches of government and the purposes of a constitution.
But others go beyond the conventional course content. High school students, for instance, may be exposed to the disparities between U.S. political ideals and reality by studying such historical events as the women's-suffrage and civil-rights movements.
Schools that choose to use the standards might require children as young as kindergarten and elementary school to learn about their responsibilities as Americans--from paying taxes to accepting responsibility for their actions.
"I think the ideal thing about this is the civics part of it that is so sorely needed by American youth today," said Patton L. Feichter, a high school teacher from Illinois who helped draft the standards.
"I don't think they have a feeling about the importance of being an American citizen," said Mr. Feichter, adding that many teenagers he has encountered are intolerant of others' views on race, gender, ethnicity, and other provocative issues.
Sections of the standards are also devoted to state and local government, subjects that have been routinely overlooked.
Mr. Quigley said it is unnecessary to offer separate civics and government courses, but the discipline should be taught in conjunction and on equal footing with related subjects, such as history, literature, and geography.
Copies of the standards can be obtained for $12 each from the Center for Civic Education, 5146 Douglas Fir Rd., Calabasas, Calif. 91302-1467; (800) 350-4223.