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Social Studies Opinion

Making Civics Count

By Rick Hess — November 15, 2012 4 min read
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With the election still fresh in everyone’s mind, seemed like a good time to flag an especially relevant new book: Making Civics Count. Just out from Harvard Education Press, the volume is edited by David Campbell, political scientist at Notre Dame and leading authority on civic engagement, Meira Levinson, education philosopher at Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of No Citizen Left Behind, along with yours truly. The book features an all-star lineup of experts shining a spotlight on civic education to help policymakers, educators, parents, and voters better understand the state of civic ed and what American kids need to learn if they’re to be responsible citizens and full participants in our democracy.

In an era of inane political debate and a monomaniacal attention to reading and math scores, it’s an especially valuable moment to tend to the broader purposes of schooling. Here are a couple of highlights:

Students are remarkably unprepared for citizenship: In the words of contributor Michael Johanek, “If 50 percent of a school district’s graduates could not read, we’d fire the superintendent. Yet regularly less than half our graduates vote, a minimal barometer of civic performance.” If democratic participation is a marker of successful citizenship education, we’re falling way short. Contributor Richard Nieme points out that on the 2006 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in civics, about a third of students scored below basic at every grade. The results demonstrate to Brookings Institution scholar William Galston “near-total civic ignorance.” Things are no different at the collegiate level. In a 2006 survey of fourteen thousand post-secondary students, more than half of seniors did not know that the Bill of Rights prohibits the establishment of an official national religion. Echoing Robert Putnam’s famed “bowling alone” thesis, contributor Peter Levine observes that participation in institutions that teach civic skills (like voluntary associations and community service clubs) has also steadily declined. The share of people who have worked on a community project decreased by a third, from 42% to 28%, between 1975 and 2005, and the share who regularly attend a meeting fell from 63% to 35%.

Charters (might be) leading the way: Anecdotally, there’s evidence that at least some charter schools succeed in fostering a strong civic ethos. New York’s Democracy Prep provides citizen-scholars with a rigorous civics curriculum, frequent assessments, inspiring hands-on activities, and mock elections every year. Mike Feinberg, co-founder of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) schools, describes the emphasis on civic education within the KIPP curriculum. Charters have more flexibility on this count than do district schools, as charters are free to craft a singular and unapologetic approach to citizenship and civic education, while district schools must navigate the sentiments of competing constituencies and school board members. Charters are similarly unencumbered in designing schedules that include a service component. Holding everything else constant, about 10 percent of students in the DC Public Schools participate in community service once a week or more, compared to over 40 percent of DC charter students. All that said, contributor (and co-editor) David Campbell points out that only a rigorous, data-driven evaluation can tell us the actual effects on what students know and do, as well as whether these practices are replicable.

Moving beyond the textbook: When folks of a certain age think of civics, they can be tempted to bust out in spontaneous renditions of “I’m Just a Bill.” Contributor Anna Saavedra points out that civics can be a helluva lot more interesting than even the best of the old Schoolhouse Rock cartoons. She points to smart instruction that taps current events, simulations, mock elections, student government, and service learning. Unfortunately, much civic education today is tedious and boring. The NAEP reports that, of eighth grade civics teachers, thirty percent lecture almost every day and another 53 percent lecture at least once a week. Just 11 percent of students say civics curricula emphasize problems facing the nation today or injustice in the American system. Contributors Joseph Kahne and his colleagues note that, with more than two-thirds of 18-29 year olds accessing the news on the Internet and 75 percent of American youth using Facebook, civic and political life is increasingly moving online. This calls for educators to start doing more to help students learn to participate in new ways. Given that less than half of teachers rate their civics professional development as useful, that may be a good place to start.

To test or not to test?: David Campbell suggests that a discussion of civics cannot ignore the “800-pound gorilla of high-stakes testing.” Only eight states have standardized tests in civics education at the high school level, and of those eight, only Ohio and Virginia require high schoolers to pass those exams to graduate. Some champions of civic education argue that the only path to improving civic education is through high-stakes testing, while others fear this will lead to rote, deadening civics instruction. Campbell does not take a position on this score -instead calling for smarter metrics with which progress can be gauged. Absent valid and reliable outcome metrics, he charges, we’ll be stuck debating sub-par data.

Whether you’re passionate about civic education or tend to regard these issues as a distraction from boosting reading scores and “closing achievement gaps,” I think you’ll find the contributions here well worth your while.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.