Social studies is a regular part of school for most American students, but new survey results show that schools and state governments could do more to help children learn how to participate more fully in democracy.
That’s the conclusion of two policy briefs released this month by the Education Commission of the States. The Denver-based organization works with state leaders on education policy and keeps tabs on a wide range of related data.
The ECS found that 41 states have laws requiring students to learn about government, civics, or citizenship. But only five states require a high school exit exam in civics or related topics: Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, and New York.
Twenty-eight states do not offer standardized tests in social studies at all, and 37 states do not factor government or social studies in school accountability ratings.
In short, many states aren’t doing a lot of work to require that students learn more about democratic government, how it actually works, and their place in it. In response, the ECS calls for a rejuvenated form of civics instruction under the name “citizenship education.”
“We see civics as focusing mostly on content knowledge about how government works and history and famous people or famous dates,” said Jeffery J. Miller, a policy analyst for the ECS and its National Center for Learning and Citizenship.
By contrast, Mr. Miller said, “we see citizenship education as taking a more active approach to learning civics and how to be a more active citizen ... getting the kids out in the community, working on real issues— working with adults.”
To help guide state and local policymakers as they examine the rules that shape civics instruction, the ECS has set up a database that compiles information on state policies related to civics and social studies and offers examples of state policy actions. The database went online last week.
Despite spotty evidence that states have fostered better teaching in civics and related courses, there is evidence that the issue is gaining traction, Mr. Miller said.
West Virginia will require civics for graduation starting in 2005, and five other states are developing high school end-of-course civics exams for graduation: Alabama, Maryland, Ohio, Texas and Virginia.
The legislatures in Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island have formed commissions to study civics education. Alabama formed such a commission several years ago, and Maryland is considering adding an end-of-course social studies test as a graduation requirement.
Colorado now has a partnership of organizations working to increase youth participation in public life as a result of the civics graduation requirement adopted this year. And the North Carolina Civic Education Consortium this year released its first index of civics knowledge and attitudes, which prompted state legislation requiring classroom discussion of current events and giving student governments more responsibility.
The ECS efforts follow other recent attention to civics education. Two reports released earlier this year focused on state academic standards in social studies.
“The Civic Mission of Schools,” from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at the University of Maryland, advocated more study of government and democracy via student projects. State standards in social studies were the focus of a report from Boston University’s Center for School Improvement. (“Reports Examine Content of ‘Civic’ Education,” Teaching and Learning, Feb. 26, 2003.)
The ECS suggests that state policymakers look at their states’ standards for citizenship education and consider how much the subject should be taught, and in which grades and classes. The group also stresses that states should decide how important citizenship is compared with other subjects, and how states can provide more training for teachers in light of budget worries.
Student projects are one way schools can help teach young people more thoughtfully about civic duties, said Scott Richardson, who oversees education programs for Earth Force Inc. The nonprofit group, based in Alexandria, Va., aims to engage young people in environmental advocacy.
“The cliché we throw around is, don’t just go clean up a park,” Mr. Richardson said, offering an example of a citizenship education program in action. “We really emphasize the policy and practice part, because we want kids to make a change that has some sort of enduring impact.”