Jay Mathews: Md. teachers' support shows value of civics exam

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 20, 2011; 10:43 PM

I don't necessarily accept the view that people who say they speak for teachers actually do. But they often have a good sense of faculty room opinion, including the fact that many teachers don't like the state tests that have been imposed on them and their students.

So what should I make of the e-mails that have been coming in from teachers all over Maryland begging that the state not carry out its plan to cancel the annual High School Assessment test in government?

The government test, which costs $1.9 million a year to administer, is being cut because federal rules don't require it, and Maryland needs to avoid a deficit. Some teachers see less innocent motives.

"It says to me that there are powerful political and bureaucratic forces that do not want our citizens educated enough to threaten their personal power," said S. Jacob Spiese III, a social studies teacher in Washington County.

Sandra Dawes, a parent and teacher in Calvert County, said "civic education . . . offers a base from which our children will learn the elements of democracy." Teacher and lawyer Margaret Land said her children went into public service because of a great 11th-grade government course.

"Rarely do I come across a school mission statement that does not contain the goal to educate students to become informed and productive citizens," she said. Without the requirement that students pass the test, there will less studying of our government.

We cringe when Jay Leno asks who ran for president in the last election and gets blank looks from otherwise intelligent young adults. I am not sure that American-in-the-street ignorance of public affairs is curable. Some say we learned more in the old days, but surveys dating back to the 19th century suggest otherwise. It appears that even if we pass tests in school, we don't retain material that doesn't interest us.

Still, a significant minority of Americans, certainly a larger portion of the population than in most countries, take seriously a citizen's duty to understand our democracy. Downgrading the importance of civics in Maryland seems wrong to me. Education Week ranks its education system No. 1. It is the home of many of the federal government employees who populate this region. Maryland school officials say they are confident that government teachers and students will still do well without the test, but I am not so sure.

The dispute shows that teachers do not necessarily resist state tests in general but don't like being forced to prepare for those that don't make sense to them. Maryland's social studies teachers have many complaints about the HSA government exam, but those who wrote to me said it is better than not having a test. It helps them motivate students to focus on the Constitution, political parties and community values at a time when American teenagers have other interests. For a while they have to think about this stuff. For some, it sinks in.

Social studies was my favorite subject in high school. I majored in government in college. My newspaper focuses on politics. I cover public schools. But it is not just me and my journalist friends and relatives who are into this. I sense a yearning in the country to know more about how government decisions are made. How do you otherwise explain the big cable TV ratings for political shows and the passion with which all kinds of Americans argue about health care, taxes and immigration?

Maybe those of us Marylanders who believe we must give teachers every chance to implant democratic values should pass the hat to keep the exam alive. Let's ask Glenn Beck and Jon Stewart to address a joint fundraiser. The University of Maryland's Byrd Stadium would be a good venue. Beck, Stewart and other famous talking heads say they abhor ignorance of our politics. This would help that cause.

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