Opinion
Assessment Opinion

Civic Education for the Entire Brain

By Derek A. Webb — September 17, 2007 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Fear not Jay Leno, America. For the past several years, the late-night comedian has mocked Americans’ civic ignorance in his “Jaywalking” feature on “The Tonight Show,” accosting strangers and asking them basic questions about American history and government. Typically, the results are abysmal … and hilarious.

But results from the 2006 National Assessment of Education Progress, released in May, show that students in the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades have registered slight but significant gains in their knowledge of U.S. and world history since the test was last administered, in 2001. (“Test Gains Reigniting Old Debate,” May 23, 2007.) Seventy percent of 4th graders (up from 66 percent in 2001), 65 percent of 8th graders (up from 62 percent), and 47 percent of 12th graders (up from 43 percent) scored at or above basic levels of knowledge in history on the 2006 test.

These are grounds for modest celebration. But there are also reasons for concern. While students seem to be gaining in their factual knowledge of American history and civics, they have demonstrated no progress in acquiring civic skills and dispositions, necessary prerequisites for their becoming the critically minded, engaged citizens we so desperately need. The results of the civics portion of NAEP showed a small but significant increase in civic knowledge for 4th graders, but no significant progress for 8th or 12th graders since 1998. At the 4th grade level, the civics test focused on factual knowledge. At the 8th and 12th grades, the focus shifted to skills such as interpreting texts, analyzing and making arguments, and assuming the responsibilities of citizenship.

This failure has not received the kind of attention it deserves in the subsequent conversation about the NAEP results. Nearly all the attention has instead been on whether our students have made adequate progress in acquiring historical knowledge and to what degree the federal No Child Left Behind Act, now up for reauthorization by Congress, has advanced or diminished that progress.

This preoccupation with the factual and quantifiable is understandable. But knowledge of history is only one part of a broader education in U.S. citizenship that young people need to receive. It is good that our students are reading history texts and recalling what they have read. It is also encouraging that more of them can recognize Independence Hall than could six years ago. But civic education has always been about more than just memory and recall. It has also been about developing skills such as critical reasoning and analysis that enable students to understand the meaning of the events they are memorizing. According to the civics results, for instance, only 28 percent of our 8th graders could identify the purpose of the Declaration of Independence.

Furthermore, civic education historically has been designed for the heart as well as the head. Abraham Lincoln advocated as much when he said in 1838: “Let reverence for the laws be breathed by every American mother to the lisping babe that prattles on her lap. Let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges.” Our efforts to teach civics today, by contrast, seem to be making little headway in cultivating public-spiritedness, civility, and respect for the rule of law—attributes crucial to the success of democracy, and too often absent in today’s political climate.

How should educators and policymakers respond to these findings? I offer three suggestions. First, we should remember the importance of teaching civic skills and dispositions as part of a civic education for the entire brain. Citizenship is a whole-brain affair, encompassing memory, reasoning, and feeling. Why shouldn’t our civic education address these as well?

Second, we should bring back the straightforward history courses that have been displaced by more generic reading courses under the No Child Left Behind law. U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings is surely right to say that the history gains on NAEP can be attributed to the law’s greater emphasis on reading. But the fact that our students are not thinking any better about this material suggests that reading more is simply not enough. Our students need to read historical materials in the context of well-designed history courses taught by well-trained history instructors who can help them make sense of what they are reading.

Third, we should recall that civic dispositions have been shown to develop through extracurricular activities, such as meeting with elected officials, taking part in student government, and completing service-learning projects. In our zeal to improve the reading and math scores of lower-performing students, we should not forget to emphasize and fund these other kinds of activities as well. Broaden our civic education to include the entire brain, and watch the test scores rise.

Related Tags:

Derek A. Webb is the inaugural Wilson Carey McWilliams Fellow in American Politics and Political Theory at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, in Charlottesville, Va. His dissertation is titled “Paving the Rights Infrastructure: Civic Education in the Presidencies of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt.”

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Classroom Technology Webinar
Seamless Integrations for Engagement in the Classroom
Learn how to seamlessly integrate new technologies into your classroom to support student engagement. 
Content provided by GoGuardian
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Recruitment & Retention Webinar
Be the Change: Strategies to Make Year-Round Hiring Happen
Learn how to leverage actionable insights to diversify your recruiting efforts and successfully deploy a year-round recruiting plan.
Content provided by Frontline
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Critical Ways Leaders Can Build a Culture of Belonging and Achievement
Explore innovative practices for using technology to build an environment of belonging and achievement for all staff and students.
Content provided by DreamBox Learning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Assessment Don’t Use State Tests ‘Punitively,’ Ed. Secretary Cardona Warns
As federal accountability restarts after two years, guidance from the department underscores how complicated that could be.
5 min read
Image of data, target goals, and gaining ground.
iStock/Getty
Assessment Latest Round of Federal Grants Aims to Make States' Assessments More Equitable, Precise
The U.S. Department of Education awarded over $29 million in competitive grants to 10 state education agencies.
2 min read
Assessment review data 599911460
vladwei/iStock/Getty<br/>
Assessment Opinion Are There Better Ways Than Standardized Tests to Assess Students? Educators Think So
Student portfolios and school community surveys are but two of the many alternatives to standardized tests.
3 min read
Illustration of students in virus environment facing wave of test sheets.
Collage by Vanessa Solis/Education Week (Images: iStock/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty)
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Assessment Whitepaper
Empowering personalized instruction with a three-tiered approach to learning evidence
Navvy is the first classroom assessment system designed to empower personalized learning by providing granular, reliable, and proximal le...
Content provided by Pearson