Education Opinion

Happy Independence Day!

By skoolboy — July 04, 2008 2 min read
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Happy Independence Day! Today is an opportunity to reflect on the ideals and principles that founded this great country, and to renew our commitment to uphold and support them when we see signs of erosion and compromise.

What does it mean to be a citizen in the modern world? In the coming year, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) will be conducting the International Civic and Citizenship Education Study (ICCS), a study of eighth-graders’ knowledge about and attitudes towards civics and citizenship in 39 countries. Conspicuously missing from the list is the U.S.A. It’s disappointing that the National Center for Education Statistics is not supporting U.S. participation in the study.

The U.S. did participate in the IEA’s 1999 study of civic education among ninth-graders in 28 countries. Students were asked about fundamental concepts of democracy and citizenship that were not specific to the workings of particular governments, especially their attitudes and actions. An example of a content item was a multiple-choice item with the stem “In democratic countries what is the function of having more than one political party?” An example of a skills item was a multiple-choice item presenting a brief political advertisement and asking which group mentioned in the ad had probably issued it.

The U.S. did better than the international average on a test of civic knowledge (which combined civic content and civic skills), and led the world on civic skills. But before we pat ourselves on the back too much, the data also showed that civic knowledge, content and skills were distributed unequally across U.S. ninth-graders, with much higher levels among white and Asian youth than Black and Hispanic youth, and higher levels among ninth-graders with highly-educated parents than among students whose parents did not go very far through school. Black youth scored .85 to .90 standard deviations lower, and Hispanic youth about .70 standard deviations lower, than whites on civic knowledge and its components. Students with at least one parent who had only completed high school scored about .80 standard deviations lower on civic knowledge than students with at least one parent who had completed a bachelor’s degree.

It’s tempting to look at these gaps and infer that they simply reflect the large average differences in academic performance among racial/ethnic and social class groups observed among American youth more generally. But I don’t think that we can count on No Child Left Behind to increase the civic knowledge of our most disadvantaged youth. There’s something very pernicious about a system that fails to educate its most vulnerable members about the very institutions of democracy that were designed to enable them to become productive citizens.

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